Aviation Security:

Weaknesses in Airport Security and Options for Assigning Screening Responsibilities

GAO-01-1165T: Published: Sep 21, 2001. Publicly Released: Sep 21, 2001.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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A safe and secure civil aviation system is a critical component of the nation's overall security, physical infrastructure, and economic foundation. Billions of dollars and a myriad of programs and policies have been devoted to achieving such a system. Although it is not fully known at this time what actually occurred or what all the weaknesses in the nation's aviation security apparatus are that contributed to the horrendous terrorist acts of Semptember 11, 2001, it is clear that serious weaknesses exist in the nation's aviation security system and that their impact can be far more devastating than previously imagined. There are security concerns with (1) airport access controls, (2) passenger and carry-on baggage screening, and (3) alternatives to current screening practices, including practices in selected other countries. Controls for limiting access to secure areas, including aircraft, have not always worked as intended. In May of 2000, special agents used counterfeit law enforcement badges and credentials to gain access to secure areas at two airports, bypassing security checkpoints and walking unescorted to aircraft departure gates. In June 2000, testing of screeners showed that significant, long-standing weaknesses--measured by the screeners' abilities to detect threat objects located on passengers or contained in their carry-on luggage--continue to exist. More recent results show that as tests more closely approximate how a terrorist might attempt to penetrate a checkpoint--screeners' performance declines significantly. Weaknesses in screening and controlling access to secure are as have left questions concerning alternative approaches. In assessing alternatives, respondents identified five important criteria: improving screening performance, establishing accountability, ensuring cooperation among stakeholders, moving people efficiently, and minimizing legal and liability issues.

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