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Boxcutters on Flight From JFK -- No, We're Not Safer Than Before 9/11

Recently a passenger brought box cutters through a passenger screening point and on to an airliner. In response to this, the Transportation Security Administration announced that the screeners responsible would get “remedial training.”

There’s been a lot of coverage of this event, including legitimate outrage that the sloppy TSA employees weren’t fired. What most people don’t realize is that tolerating failure and outright sloppy work has been a hallmark of U.S. aviation security from the beginning. The truth is nobody has ever been held accountable for aviation security failures – nobody. From top to bottom, the TSA arrogantly claims it does nothing wrong.

Poor security planning and implementation has been a hallmark of the Washington bureaucracy, first with the Federal Aviation Administration, and now with its demon spawn, the Transportation Security Administration.

Let’s go back a few years…

“To a trained terrorist, U.S. airports have the security of a Laundromat.”

That was a statement I made to the Wall Street Journal in June of 1997. Lots of folks thought it was humorous. Nobody took it seriously.

Then came 9/11, proving my point, which still, 10 years later, nobody’s taking seriously. One might think that after nearly 3,000 deaths and four airliners hijacked with near-military precision, the U.S. would have implemented a comprehensive overhaul of aviation security. One would think that the people at the top of the aviation security apparatus in place on 9/11 would have been sacked, especially in light of the fact that they had been warned repeatedly about sloppy security by FAA Red Team investigators, and tragically ignored them.

Nope, nothing like that. The people responsible for the failed U.S. aviation security on that tragic Tuesday morning not only have never been held to account, but many of them have been promoted or have found cushy lucrative jobs in private industry. The head of the FAA – which was responsible for airline security at the time – was lauded for her fine work not three days after the tragedy by Norman Mineta, the Secretary of Transportation. That was Jane Garvey, whose performance in front of the 9/11 Commission was the greatest bumbling act since Frank Pantangle’s Senate testimony in "Godfather II."

The former FAA head didn’t have a clue. But nobody called her on it.

Not to worry though. Ms. Garvey went on to be appointed to the Board of Directors of United Airlines. Yup, the same United that suffered the loss of two of its own airplanes, crews and passengers due to failure of Garvey’s FAA. Incredibly, the CEO of United stated at the time that Garvey represented the type of management the airline needed.

That didn’t bother anybody. Not the various “9/11 Family” groups. Not the unions who represented those lost United employees. Nobody. So don’t expect a couple of asleep-at-the-switch screeners to get fired.

Let’s go further. Testing of TSA screeners across the nation reportedly has a 70 percent or higher failure rate. Even Rep John Mica (R-FL), whose committee has oversight of the TSA, has said that screener failures are “off the chart.” But the TSA administrator defends that sloppy performance, and he’s never called to task.

So, why should we expect those box-cutter-blind screeners to get fired?

Remember the incident last year, when a graduate student from China slipped past an unmanned screening point at Newark to kiss his girlfriend good-bye? It shut down a terminal. Caused no telling how much mayhem on the traveling public. -- The TSA employee who was AWOL from his post and who allowed this event to happen was – you guessed it – given “remedial training.” 

And as for taking action to protect the public in the future, we have the indomitable Senator Lautenberg (D-N.J.) asking that Homeland Security “review” the circumstances” – which will accomplish nothing, because the TSA and DHS have never called a foul on themselves. But he did call for specific actions to fine infringers like that Chinese kid into financial oblivion.

So, an incident where the TSA lets potential weapons get on an airplane isn’t much call for firing anybody – at least not in the context of the Big Picture, which is to protect the bureaucracy first and the public second.

The TSA is untouchable. A couple months ago, a major network reporter called me regarding a security breach. When I noted we’re no safer than before 9/11, he came unglued. “That’s not true!” he practically yelled. “I’ve been to the TSA briefings!”

Great. A 70 percent training failure rate. Security failures where TSA staff just get “retrained.” And this guy’s defending the TSA to the public. He’s been to the briefings, see.

Here’s the bottom line: professional terrorists are out to blow us to smithereens. And we’ve got the TSA as our first line of defense. Instead of having a professionally-managed, disciplined security apparatus, Congress has given us a 60,000 member DMV from Hell.

But it’s got great remedial training.

Michael Boyd is an aviation expert and president of Boyd Group International.