SECURING THE SKIES
FEBRUARY 12, 1997
A commission chaired by Vice President Al Gore has come out with new recommendations to improve air safety. The commission was created in the wake of last summer's ValuJet accident and TWA 800 crash and recommended ways to improve airport security and airplane maintenance. While airline officials have looked favorably on the report, they wonder if the recommended measures will make air travel too expensive and bothersome. After a background report, Margaret Warner leads a discussion of the commissions proposals.
MARGARET WARNER: When TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island last July, terrorism was immediately suspended as the cause. Amid new public security concerns the Clinton administration appointed a commission led by Vice President Gore to study ways to make air travel safer. In the months since then federal investigators have been unable to determine the cause of the Flight 800 disaster. Many of the investigators now believe that mechanical failure is the likeliest culprit, but the commission continued its work, focusing on ways to avert both security and mechanical failures. Today the Gore commission submitted its report.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
February 12, 1997:
President Clinton announces a plan of action to ensure that America's airways and airplanes will remain the safe .
November 19, 1996:
Jim Lehrer asks James Kallstrom, FBI Assistant Director in charge of the criminal investigation, some tough questions regarding the crash of TWA Flight 800 .
November 13, 1996:
Could the Indian Air disaster happen here?
Sept. 9, 1996:
President Clinton announces new safety standards
Sept. 3, 1996:
Airport security has tightened up quite a bit in the last twenty years, but is it enough? Tom Bearden investigates.
July 25, 1996:
A panel of experts discuss who should pay for safer skies.
July 25, 1996:
What equipment is in place to prevent explosives from being smuggled onto airliners?
July 19, 1996:
Threats To Freedom.
The planting of a terrorist bomb continues to circulate as one of the possible reasons behind the downing of TWA Flight 800. A panel of experts discusses attempts to balance security with personal freedom.
Browse the Online NewsHour's transportation coverage.
VICE PRESIDENT GORE: We call on government and industry to work together to cut the fatal accident rate of aviation by 80 percent in 10 years. We believe it's a realistic goal, and we believe the recommendations in this report represent the way to achieve that goal.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: It's important to note that air travel is still our safest mode of transportation, and America has the lowest accident rate in the world. We have to keep the lowest and keep working to improve. The FAA and the airline industry have been partners in this effort for years. Today I'm pleased to announce that NASA will join them. NASA has agreed to dedicate up to a half billion dollars in research and development budget over the next five years to help make sure we do achieve our accident reduction goal. Second, aviation security is one of the major fronts of our three-part counter-terrorism strategy. We acted quickly to implement these recommendations. We have begun installing 54 bomb detection machines in America's airports. We are training and deploying over 100 bomb-sniffing dog teams. The FAA is hiring 300 new special agents to test airport security, and the FBI is adding 644 agents and 620 support personnel in 1997 to counter terrorism efforts.
MARGARET WARNER: Among the recommendations made by the commission were the following:
- upgrade to a satellite-based air traffic control system by the year 2005
- expand inspections of older aircraft
- use passenger profiles to identify certain travelers for extra scrutiny
- make sure that checked bags of travelers chosen for extra scrutiny match the on-board passenger list
- tough employee security checks
- and, finish installing high technology baggage screening machines at major airports.
MARGARET WARNER: Now a discussion of the new proposals. Elaine Kamarck is senior policy adviser to the Vice President. Michael Goldfarb is former chief of staff at the Federal Aviation Administration; he now runs a management consulting firm. Carol Hallett is president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, which represents the major U.S. airlines. And Larry Johnson specialized in transportation counter-terrorism at the State Department from 1989 to 1993. He now runs a security consulting firm.
Welcome all of you. And Elaine Kamarck, starting with you, we just heard the President say the U.S. air traffic system or air system is the safest in the world.
ELAINE KAMARCK, Gore Senior Policy Adviser: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: Why do we need these extra measures?
ELAINE KAMARCK: Predictions are that air travel will grow exponentially in the next ten to fifteen years. In fact, air travel will be to the 21st century what railroads were to the 19th century. And, therefore, in order for it to grow, we have got to change our air traffic control system to a more modern system, and as traffic grows, if we keep the accident rate exactly where it is, there will still be more accidents. So the only way to decrease the number of fatalities is to make an improvement in what is already a very good and very level accident rate.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying that even if the system doesn't get better, fatalities will get much worse?
ELAINE KAMARCK: Absolutely, because there's going to be so much more travel by air. We need to build a system that can accommodate the growth in air travel. And that's essential to our economic well-being.
MARGARET WARNER: And then as the investigation into the TWA crash which, of course, gave birth to this commission, shifted from great focus on terrorism to more focus on mechanical safety or failure or that possibility, how did that change the focus of the commission or affect it?
ELAINE KAMARCK: The President, when he announced the formation of this commission in Long Island that last summer, said from the very beginning that the commission should look at three things: terrorism, safety, and air traffic control; because, remember, we had--we followed not just the TWA crash but the ValuJet crash, and in the summer of 1995, a lot of brown-outs in the air traffic control system. So by the time TWA happened the President knew that we needed to look at a large number of different aspects of air travel. And that's what the mandate of the commission was from the beginning.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. As we look at these proposals, let's try to do them one by one and first look at the anti-terrorism ones. And Larry Johnson, starting with you, everything from the limited bag match to the profiling of passengers and other measures announced. How effective do you think they're going to be?
LARRY JOHNSON, Security Expert: I think the real effectiveness of the commission was made first in pushing forward explosive detection technology, getting it deployed.
MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about these machines now that are already starting to be--
LARRY JOHNSON: That's the machines. They put the money--it was not just saying get the machines out there. The administration just put the money out there to do it. I think the issues of positive passenger bag match and profiling, the fact is those are stop gap measures until technology catches up. The machines that are being deployed right now, they're not working where they should be in terms of really handling the future load demand, but the trend lines are going in the right direction. Profiling and passenger bag match, you know, I think my own view is that unless you do full passenger bag match, you're missing the point, because there are ways that you can get through the existing system. That said, what really needs to be emphasized is the fact that the threat of terrorism to civil aviation is extremely low. When you go back and look at the last 14 years, less than 2,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks. And when you focus in on it, one country stands up having done three of those bombings out of say eight bombings. That's Libya. So it's not a broad threat against generic terrorists; it's a specific threat against specific terrorist states and, in particular, Libya. And I think Libya's something that ought to be put higher on the foreign policy agenda as part of this overall effort.
MARGARET WARNER: Carol Hallett, explain the distinction for our viewers between full passenger bag match which Mr. Johnson referred to and the kind that is--the limited kind that's envisioned in these recommendations.
CAROL HALLETT, Air Transport Association: Well, what we're pleased about is that the Vice President and the commission have come up with a multi-layered approach that incorporates not only equipment as well as profiling and of course matching bags to passengers and passengers to bags. The beauty of a multi-layered approach is that you are much more effective. 100 percent bag match not only would create great disruption. It's impractical. Most important of all, it's a real victory for the terrorist. If you talk to terrorism experts, they'll point out that if you have 100 percent of anything, then it automatically allows the terrorist to do it some other way.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But just to explain, full bag match would mean that if there's any checked bag in the hold and that passenger is not actually in his or her seat, they go in and they get the bag out.
CAROL HALLETT: That is correct.
MARGARET WARNER: And you don't--you don't like that, and that's not in this proposal?
CAROL HALLETT: Not liking it has nothing to do with it. The point is that when you have statistics from the FAA today, one out of every seventy-one passengers coming into a hub airport does not for some reason get on to that connecting flight. And so when you multiply that to all of the places that plane is going, not only are there delays, but it was estimated it would mean an approximate 30 percent reduction in flights, changing in schedules that result in laying people off from work, having an enormous impact on not only the business community but the travel and tourism community as well.
LARRY JOHNSON: Well, Margaret, as a terrorism expert let me say I do disagree with Carol on this. And I think the fact is the positive passenger bag match will work, and the airlines recognize it. It could impose some enormous costs. The seventy to one ratio is not--I don't think that's accurate based upon my understanding, and--
CAROL HALLETT: Well, the tests actually proved that out.
LARRY JOHNSON: --in fact, the tests--well, the test hasn't been performed yet. And it's going to be performed in May. You know, I think one of the issues that remain--and Vicki Commic, who is also on the President's commission, was a very adamant supporter of this--she insisted on it. And I think a full 100 percent bag match is really the only way to give you the guarantee. The profiling and automated system that's being proposed is really--is more illusion than reality.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. I want to get your view, Michael Goldfarb, on this, and, again, just to explain, the way it's going to work, I gather, is only those passengers that are identified as perhaps potential problems, their bags will be subjected to bag match, correct?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB, Former FAA Chief of Staff: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: And what do you think of that?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, first of all, I think that the kind of discussion we're having here is illustrative of what's going to be the difficult part of this. The administration has given civil aviation the strongest push in 20 years to reform aviation, civil aviation security. That's the good news. Implementation is going to be the key. And as we look at some of these proposals and we look at where the funding is going to come for them, and on the question of security, the question is: are the American people ready for the kind of invasive procedures used elsewhere in the world? I think Larry would agree we don't have the level of threat at U.S. airports that we experience around the world; therefore, some of these things really aren't yet appropriate for U.S. airports to be full-scale implementation.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, are you saying, what they recommended is not appropriate?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Security is as good--security is as good as the lowest link. It's people; it's procedures, and equipment, and they all have to work together.
MARGARET WARNER: No, but I'm just trying to understand your point of view.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying you think the steps they took go too far?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: No, no, no. I think the steps they took were the first steps. There are many, many other steps. They become essentially public policy issues. Will the American people be willing to wait an hour and a half when a positive bag match requires a plane to be unloaded, all the bags to be taken off that plane, and people are going to a hub and spoke system to get the--to get to the destinations. That's a public policy issue. I don't think we've solved that. I think it was an excellent start in that direction, but we have a lot of debate ahead of us.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask--let me get Elaine Kamarck in here. What was the thinking in the decision you came on in the bag match issue?
ELAINE KAMARCK: We want to do full bag match. We recognize, as Larry says, that, in fact, it's an interim measure until we can get to a point where we've got enough fast technology that you don't have to do this; that, in fact, we've got explosive detection systems checking all the bags. The thought was that for the next year probably the only thing we could do would be this partial bag match. But the fact is that the FAA is going to conduct a test in May. We need to find out one essential fact, what is the extent of the disruption now. Carol and the airlines think the disruption is extraordinary, 30 percent, et cetera. The fact is we don't know. And until we know that, we don't know how to go about making a rule to actually implement full bag match, so we have taken a halfway step but we intend to take the rest of the step as soon as we have the right information. We just didn't have enough now to make a credible judgment. And one thing that the Vice President has always been careful about is we promise what we know we can deliver, and that's what we've done in this report.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's turn to the issues dealing with both mechanical safety and air traffic control. And Michael Goldfarb, let me hear from you on that. What do you think of the steps in that area, increased inspectors, inspecting aging aircraft better, and, of course, this new satellite-based system of air traffic control?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Anything that provides the FAA with the resources it needs to keep pace with an industry that is dynamically growing and changing. We've been playing catch-up for 20 years in the FAA. It's an agency held to the same sets of standards of every other federal agency. They cannot assure a steady stream of funding, and one of the issues is, can the FAA have either a user fee scheme, or some way that they can plan to meet the President's goals of having satellite navigation over eight years? Can they put safety technology into air traffic control without being held hostage to a Congress every year who continually under-funds some of those requirements?
MARGARET WARNER: What's your view of whether these recommendations give the FAA the tools it needs in this area?
CAROL HALLETT: Well, there's no question but what the tools are now going to be established. There are going to be a variety of different things that will happen not only in terms of the creation of the National Aviation Review Commission; they will be involved with determining the funding; there will be a number of different people involved in determining how will the satellite system be utilized, how will GPS be utilized. The key is this is an enormous push to getting the aviation architecture in line to by the year 2015 being able to take the capacity that we know will be there. This is really a launching pad. And now it's up to us to prioritize, to figure out what has to be done first, and get it done. And this is one time when the government, the administration, the commission have said here we are; we've given you the capability of doing it. Now get it done. And we should all be very grateful.
MARGARET WARNER: As a launching pad, do you think in the safety and air traffic control area, these are the right steps?
LARRY JOHNSON: It is the right step. The one step that's not being taken that really ought to be seriously considered is you need to pull the security mission out of the FAA's other regulatory missions. I think the commission is exactly right in saying this is a national security priority. I would also make the argument that, therefore, a national security type agency should handle it. At this point a regulatory agency like the FAA is not a national security agency; it's a regulatory agency. And it ends up being very much more of a battleground between people that have very legitimate interests. I don't want anything that I'm suggesting to imply that somehow the airlines are out there doing something nefarious or underhanded. They are representing their interests. And that's appropriate. But when you're dealing with security issues, you need to pull security out of that debate because I think on an--
MARGARET WARNER: You mean and let the FAA focus on the other things?
LARRY JOHNSON: Exactly.
MARGARET WARNER: What about that point?
ELAINE KAMARCK: That's a very interesting point, and it's fairly complicated because security for aviation actually crosses all sorts of boundaries. You have our intelligence community in the United States looking at overseas and foreign threats. You have FBI. You have BATF. You have local police authorities. You have local airport authorities. This is--security is already divided into all sorts of pots. One of the things we did was we said let's make sure that security is tied together in airport consortia, so that state, federal, local, FBI, foreign intelligence are brought into one coherent security plan per airport.
MARGARET WARNER: But what about also the point I think both the gentlemen were making that the FAA, you've given then an awful lot of things to look at in the safety area, but that they may not be equipped financially and in terms of mission and authority to do it.
ELAINE KAMARCK: They are equipped, in fact, financially to do everything that we have given them to do. And they have total authority to do what we have given them. In fact, most of the things in the report--I was just looking through it today--most of the things are regulatory or many of them are simply administrative that the FAA can start doing under their own authority tomorrow.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Well, the Vice President and the President have given a very--it's half-time, and the wind's been at our backs. Now it's the second half of the game, and we're facing the wind. And that wind is a very difficult budget reduction requirement. And while I, respectfully I agree that they've been given the tools, I'm not certain the resources are there, but mostly the institutional change at the FAA must occur. They must think differently about air traffic control. They must think differently about the regulatory responsibility and not just kick tires but go to the airlines and see, in fact, if the airlines have the systems in place that assure compliance with the requirements. That's more than just financing. That's a cultural change.
ELAINE KAMARCK: That is--he just said it very eloquently--that is the core of reinventing government. And the FAA will be under intense pressure from the White House to reinvent, just as other agencies of the government have been.
CAROL HALLETT: And the change is so positive. You know, one time you will have a need here, and it is ignored. Now, everyone is focusing on all of the needs. And just as the airlines make security and safety their number one priority, now we're also making the future of the entire system a number one priority.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And let me ask you, Carol Hallett, how soon will a great many of these changes really take place to the degree that passengers feel the effect? And what's going to be the impact in terms of cost and convenience for passengers?
CAROL HALLETT: Well, you never know what the cost will be because obviously much of it has absorbed. Another aspect of it is that there are costs that are passed on to the passenger. The key is this: Just as it relates to the profiling bag match and the use of technology, there is a deadline. The plan has to be completed and ready to go December 31st. And it will be. All of us have to take this with the spirit that we are going to work cooperatively, as has been recommended, and we'll work in partnership to make sure this all gets done.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all four very much.