Suspicious airline incidents will head straight to TSA

Transportation Security Administration directive responds to pilot concerns.

To ensure it has a bird's eye view of every potential problem, the Transportation Security Administration is now requiring all airlines and airports to report immediately any potential security threats.

The move is controversial: It is praised by security experts as a key step in ensuring another 9/11 does not happen, while airlines see a bureaucratic nuisance in the requirement to rapidly report incidents that may be insignificant.

In October, a Monitor story highlighted the lack of a standard centralized reporting system for airline employees to report suspicious activity, 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. The 9/11 commission recommended some kind of centralized reporting system as key to avoiding another terrorist attack. The goal is to have every dot of information in one place, so they can be connected.

"It was 19 minutes from the first hijacking to the first plane hitting the first tower," says Mark Hatfield Jr., director of communications for the TSA. By looking at such incidents in real time "from a high altitude perspective we can see patterns, anomalies, trends that give us a much better sense of what may be developing or clues to potential terrorist activities that you can't see from a ground-level perspective."

This TSA directive is one of several recommendations of the 9/11 commission designed to improve aviation security that will soon be implemented. The intelligence reform bill passed by Congress last week will also require more effective screening of passenger baggage as well as authorizes funds to improve screening of cargo, most of which currently is loaded onto planes without being checked. The bill also upgrades security on pilots' licenses and standardizes drivers' licenses to make them harder to forge.

The TSA directive, which is separate from the initiatives in the intelligence bill, is a reform that some pilots and flight attendants had been urging the airlines and federal authorities to implement for several years. Since the workers are on the front lines on the ground and in the air, many were frustrated there was no industrywide standard for reporting suspicious activity, and no special training in how to distinguish it from simple unruly behavior.

Currently, airlines are supposed to report incidents to local airport police or the FBI. But some pilots and flight attendants say that doesn't always happen. Now airlines will be required to report immediately any dubious activity to the TSA Operations Center in Herndon, Va. There all the information can be tracked simultaneously. "It's an outstanding idea that ultimately will prevent the next 9/11 from happening," says one of the pilots who aided the Monitor in its October investigation. "Airlines track everything from your food choice to your frequent flier miles, but they don't want to track security issues?"

"It's a step in the right direction," says Captain Steve Luckey, chief of security for the Air Line Pilots Association. "Unfortunately, the government didn't come up with enough definitive guidelines. They want everything reported." He is also concerned that the TSA hasn't yet provided training in operational surveillance to flight crews.

But airlinesare not pleased. They say there are thousands of reports of unusual behavior a day - like a rude passenger. "Don't add another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. That's not going to increase the level of protection, at least in our judgment," says Doug Wills, of the Air Transport Association, the major airline lobby.

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