Are terrorists 'casing' planes?
Some pilots see 'suspicious' activity, but say there's no direct way to report it.
NEW YORK — Security experts continue to be concerned that terrorists are monitoring and probing the nation's aviation system in order to uncover vulnerabilities and prepare for another attack.
As often as twice a week, major airlines receive reports of suspicious behavior, according to industry sources - things like passengers videotaping the cockpit area, spending excessive amounts of time in the lavatory, or suddenly rushing to the front of the plane and then backing off.
Despite rising concern about security, however, pilots and other industry sources say there is still is no single and standardized system for airline employees to report such suspicious behavior directly to government investigators.
While the Federal Air Marshal Service does have a secure website to report such things, many airlines require that reports go to them first for vetting before they're sent along.
In addition, industry insiders say that flight crews need more training to alert them how to identify the difference between unusual but innocent behavior and "operational surveillance."
Such training and awareness could give security agencies and flight crews the intelligence they need to thwart another attack. Indeed, the Al Qaeda terrorists that commandeered four planes on Sept. 11 spent more than a year analyzing how the airlines and their security apparatus operated. Several took what were believed to be "casing" flights in the summer of 2001.
"The flight crew should be the eyes and ears of aviation security," says Chris Witkowski, director of air safety, health, and security for the Association of Flight Attendants. "They need training."
These concerns are the latest in a series of vulnerabilities uncovered within the nation's aviation security system. An inspector general's report recently found that undercover investigators in the past year were still able to get weapons and explosives past government screeners. Another report found that three years after Sept. 11, no centralized watch list contains the names of all suspected terrorists. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were known to the US government at the time, but they were not on its "no fly" list.
The Transportation Security Agency acknowledges that more work needs to be done to secure the nation's skies, but says it's made great strides. The key, it insists, is focusing on a multilayered approach, from improving passenger screening to securing cockpit doors to training pilots to use firearms. Its investigators are also confident that they are getting full cooperation from the airlines in terms of reporting any suspicious behavior.
"We have an excellent working relationship with the industry," says Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service. "There is a clear line of communication, and we are getting the information."
But sources familiar with the current system contend that it has at times prevented such reports from making it to federal security authorities. That's because of the requirement by many airlines that security concerns go to them first.
"The carriers would like information to go through them for obvious reasons," says Capt. Steve Luckey, chairman of the National Security Committee of the Air Line Pilots Association. "But unfortunately we have tracked some things that what we thought were significant issues that went into the corporate structure that didn't come out."
Security experts say that's a prescription for trouble. An odd incident at one airline may not raise concerns for its security professionals because it may be perceived as an isolated incident. If they were aware that it was also happening at other airlines, it could become more critical.
"There are potential dots here, and someone should connect them," says Brian Jenkins, a security analyst at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "Anomalies may have no meaning, but anomalies in a sequence of events may."
The nation's leading air carriers refuse to talk about their reporting process for security reasons. But an internal United Airlines employee bulletin dated July 19, 2004, gives some insight into its procedures. The memo notes that some federal air marshals (FAMs) are instructing flight attendants to report "suspicious or irregular incidents to a [Federal Air Marshal] web site." But it says that "our flight attendants must follow UAL procedures to report safety/security issues or unusual situations." Those procedures require that incidents be reported to the company.
Jeff Green of United Airlines confirmed that the company's operating procedures do require employees to report security concerns to United, but wouldn't comment on whether all such incidents are passed onto federal authorities. He did note, however that "our No. 1 priority is the safety and security of our passengers and our crew."
But an internal union security document from one of the major airlines criticizes its reporting procedures, noting that it "does not have a stand alone system for collecting and analyzing security incidents reported by aircrews."
Pilots say there's a successful precedent at the airlines to help them deal with such security issues. It's how they've handled safety concerns - those potential malfunctions that may involve human or mechanical error.
"What United has done with aviation safety awareness is phenomenal in terms of collecting safety data and disseminating it to air crews so that we all can learn from the experience of others," says one pilot, who asked not to be identified. "I'd love to see this same protocol applied to security."
According to several pilots, a Sept. 15 incident aboard a Spirit Air flight between LaGuardia Airport in New York and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., illustrates the need for further training of pilots and flight attendants that would help them differentiate suspicious conduct from simple unruly behavior. They say it also shows the need for a standard, industrywide reporting protocol.
During the flight, two men of Middle Eastern descent were seated in the emergency exit row by the wing. About halfway through, one of them begin yelling and pounding violently on the seat in front of him, according to Steven Deutsch, a passenger who was sitting several rows away. Then a third man of Middle Eastern descent came forward from the back of the plane. The agitated man was angry that the woman in the seat in front of him had reclined her seat back. A flight attendant arrived and explained the woman had every right to do that and apologized that he could not be moved to another seat because the plane was full. The man continued to be agitated. When another passenger offered to switch seats, the man refused and then suddenly appeared to calm down.
"He calmed down too much and too easily. The whole thing was strange," says Mr. Deutsch. As he exited the plane, Deutsch said he noticed that the emergency life vests under the seats in that emergency exit row were on the floor. "As I was leaving I asked the pilot if the incident was going to be reported, and he said, 'Probably not.' That annoyed me."
When told about the incident, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Agency said it was the kind of incident that they'd like to see reported to the FAM website, even if it was simple unruly behavior. In addition, a security official with a flight attendants' union said they had had other examples of unusual behavior in emergency exit rows.
But a security official with a pilot's union disagreed. He said he believed the incident fell into the category of disruptive passenger behavior, and he would not have reported it.
"This is exactly why we need training in operational surveillance, so we can know what to report and be sure we are aware of unusual potential security incidents across the industry," says a third pilot.