Aviation Security:

Terrorist Acts Illustrate Severe Weaknesses in Aviation Security

GAO-01-1166T: Published: Sep 20, 2001. Publicly Released: Sep 20, 2001.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
(202) 512-4803


Office of Public Affairs
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A safe and secure civil aviation system is critical to the nation's security, physical infrastructure, and economy. Billions of dollars and myriad 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 events on September 11, 2001, it is clear that serious weaknesses exist in our aviation security system and that their impact can be far more devastating than previously imagined. As reported last year, GAO's review of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) oversight of air traffic control (ATC) computer systems showed that FAA had not followed some critical aspects of its own security requirements. Specifically, FAA had not ensured that ATC buildings and facilities were secure, that the systems themselves were protected, and that the contractors who use these systems had undergone background checks. Controls for limiting access to secure areas, including aircraft, have not always worked as intended. GAO's special agents used fictitious law enforcement badges and credentials to gain access to secure areas, bypass security checkpoints at two airports, and walk unescorted to aircraft departure gates. Tests of screeners revealed significant weaknesses in their ability to detect threat objects on passengers or in their carry-on luggage. Screening operations in Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom--countries whose systems GAO has examined--differ from this country's in some significant ways. Their screening operations require more extensive qualifications and training for screeners; include higher pay and better benefits; and often include different screening techniques, such as "pat-downs" of some passengers.