TSA to examine airport passenger screenings

Published 6 March 2008

TSA to undertake a sweeping review of airport security practices; private jets’ owners and passengers will have to provide personal information to be screened by border patrol

DHS is undertaking a sweeping review of airport security screening to try to ease passenger hassles, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff told USA TODAY. It also is focusing more on possible attacks by private jets from overseas. Chertoff said he has directed the Transportation Security Administration, an agency in the department, to “take a look at the whole system of screening at the airport” over the next 30 to 45 days. “We’re going to see if we can maybe make a couple of significant changes to remove some of the burden,” Chertoff said. The changes “may actually be welcomed by the travelers.” Chertoff also said he plans to impose stricter rules this year on U.S.-bound private jets to try to prevent terrorists from sneaking in “a nuclear bomb or (radioactive) dirty bomb or biological weapons.”

The TSA has revised airport security by installing powerful X-ray machines at checkpoints to screen carry-on bags and training screeners in “behavior detection” to help them spot potential terrorists in airports based on their actions and replies to questions. Chertoff declined to specify potential changes in the screening process. “I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do yet because I don’t know if I’m going to do it,” he said. He noted that the TSA has periodically eased security procedures, most notably in late 2005 when it began letting passengers carry small tools and scissors on airplanes. He said any changes won’t reduce security and could be offset by “things we might make tougher.” Chertoff’s department is about to issue requirements for crews and passengers of private jets to provide their names, birth dates and other information an hour before takeoff, so they can be checked against terrorist watch lists. The next step could be requiring that private jets be scanned and passengers screened by U.S. Customs agents overseas, Chertoff said. The procedures might be “a little inconvenient,” he said, but if a bomb got into the United States on a private jet, there would be calls to “shut all private aviation off.” Chertoff said he grew more concerned about the issue last year when a senior executive of a private-jet company told him, “I don’t know who the heck gets on my planes, and it worries me.”

Homeland security consultant Randall Larsen said Chertoff’s plan has holes. “Bono and Bill Gates would be prevented from smuggling a nuke into the U.S., but a terrorist with a nuke in a Gulfstream who takes off from a remote airfield in Africa or Latin America … would have no problem getting it to D.C.,” he said. “Let’s just hope the terrorists fly out of (London’s) Heathrow.” Chertoff dismissed the concern. If a person isn’t cleared into the nation’s airspace by aviation authorities, “you will not make it into the U.S. without being greeted by a couple of F-16s,” he said.