Dear TSA Administrator Admiral Neffenger: from one former Coast Guard to another

The Transportation Security Administration has a new man at the helm – Admiral Neffenger. The agency has many critics and there is little doubt that there will be no let-up in the creativity of those who seek to bypass the measures it takes to safeguard American skies, but every challenge has a solution and Jeffrey C. Price has drawn up an initiative which he feels might help Admiral Neffenger along the way and, in doing so, create a more effective, respected agency.

Dear Admiral Neffenger,

From one former ‘coastie’ to another, Semper Paratus, and congratulations on your appointment…to one of the most unenviable positions in the federal government. At times, it may feel like you’ve taken command of the Titanic, after it’s already hit the iceberg. You have a ship you did not design, a crew you did not train and you’re supposed to not only save everyone on board, but also get the ship underway again. I do not envy your task. But there is still a way to succeed. You have an opportunity to choose your own legacy, to improve the culture of TSA and to massively improve aviation security.

Sir, I suggest you do three things: first, understand something every ‘coastie’ knows in their heart, and that is, no matter how hard you try you can’t save them all. Second, make security fit aviation, not aviation fit security. And third, build a system of security professionals who are educated and trained to protect the system. Your Transportation Security Officers, and the passengers will thank you for it.

You will be told that you have to be right all the time, while the terrorists only have to be right once. Nice catch-phrase, but unrealistic as an aviation security strategy. Just as in the Coast Guard, you must define your own success because you can’t save everyone. How many terrorists has TSA caught? None. But that’s okay. It’s not in TSAs mission to catch terrorists. That’s the FBI’s job. TSA is about deterring crime and terrorism and we can’t accurately measure how many people have not attacked aviation because of a deterrent measure, no more than we can determine how many people have not robbed a house because a porch light was left on. We all know that another successful attack is possible – we can no more prevent that than we can prevent how many families decide to go sailing in dangerous weather. There are too many variables to ever have a 100% secure system. So our standard must be: did we do everything in our power, to protect the system while still allowing air transportation to take place? It’s about deterrence. I would never suggest we take our foot off the gas, but we must focus on what we can control, which is to provide a layered security system that convinces the bad guy that their attack will either: (a) not be successful, (b) not have a significant impact, and (c) that if it is successful and has a significant impact, that we are going to fix what’s broke or failed, and carry on – resiliency is a huge deterrence.

Aviation is as essential to the United States just as our power, water, food and other transportation systems. It’s not a nicety, nor a luxury. The 9/11 attacks resulted in the near economic collapse of the U.S. When air travel stops, flights are missed, business deals that people are relying on for their livelihood fall through, people lose jobs, the essential medical device doesn’t get to the dying patient in time, the once in a lifetime family vacation that is only possible by air, fails to happen, the final trip to see an aging relative or sick child, is missed.

The trickledown effect erodes our economy, cuts into our values and eats away at our way of life. For aviation to work, it must move, efficiently, effectively, and as safely and as securely as possible. The new IMAX movie, ‘Living in the Age of Airplanes,’ does a great job of explaining how dependent we are on aviation. Trying to protect everything results in protecting nothing and when we change one part of the system it affects the others. Example: backing up screening lines creates other vulnerabilities, and long lines stress out screeners who then miss threats. I know, I was one back in the 80s. [Note: I do understand that TSA is about all modes of transportation security, but you’ll find you spend the majority of your time in aviation, as it’s aviation that the terrorists keep coming back to.]

A top priority is to ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’. It’s Covey’s fifth habit. TSA’s reputation problems with the industry is that no one takes the time to understand how aviation works, and why it must work – prescriptions are written before ever seeing the patient. I am glad to see that you’re already meeting with our key industry and association leaders and are touring airports – just be sure to hit a variety of airports, big and small, because, as they say in our industry, when you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.

Aviation security is more than just TSA, screening and air marshals. Another mistake of the past is TSAs focus as screening being the only layer of security; even the security layer graphic posted on the TSA website forgets three of the most critical elements in aviation security – airport access control, credentialing and perimeter security – effectively the back door. However, there are hundreds of aviation security experts throughout the US, already working at airports as Airport Security Coordinators – and their expertise is going untapped. They stand by, willing to help – but they need you to understand their world, and they need real engagement.

Engagement with the airport community takes more than just having a block on the organisational chart that says ‘Industry Engagement’. True engagement means building trust to work together to implement effective policies. It means putting forth your commanders intent and letting the experts come up with the implementation. It means building a culture of security professionals who are working together, rather than against each other, or worse, ignorant of each other.

I understand that many TSA employees came into the job believing they were the last line of defence against terrorism, but they need to stay in their lane and focus on that very important job. Beware of mission creep – not everyone gets to be the quarterback, but everyone on the team has an essential role.

Beware of false assumptions. I recently heard a statistic from a research study that stated there’s a 1 in 25 million chance of another hijacking. But, the assumptions were that (a) air marshals are only there for transition when the pilot has to use the lavatory, (b) secondary flight barriers were more effective (which they may be – that’s worth revisiting), (c) that the next hijacking would look like the 9/11 hijacking and finally (d) that cockpit doors are some impenetrable force field. Interesting research, but these are dangerous assumptions if one is going to evaluate real threats.

ijackers have been gaining access to locked cockpit doors for decades, and who is to say the next group of hijackers won’t have automatic weapons that have been smuggled on board by airline or airport insiders, and the hijacker won’t have knowledge of the cockpit door mechanisms and how to exploit or override them, or won’t persuade the pilots to open the door? I’m not giving away secret knowledge I’m talking about the TWA 847 hijacking — in 1985. There’s a value to knowing our history.

On 9th September 2009, a single, unarmed man hijacked an Aeromexico flight into Mexico City, with only a fabricated story and a cardboard box. There sadly was no “let’s roll,” no one stepped up to stop him. In fact, some of the passengers didn’t even know the plane had been hijacked.