Published: Fri Nov 8, 2013
In light of the shootings at Los Angeles International Airport in October 2013, TTU College of Engineering Associate Dean of Research and Innovation Vahid Motevalli was interviewed for an article in the New York Times (read the article here). Motevalli has extensive experience in aviation safety and security. He worked at the Aviation Institute at the George Washington University in various capacities from 1998 -2008, including Director from 2002-2008, and directed GW's international Aviation Safety and Security Summit program from 2001-05. He has extensive experience working with the US and foreign government officials, the Department of State, TSA and aviation industry, as well as research involving aircraft cabin safety and security.<>
Recently, Motevalli expanded on some of the ideas put forth in the New York Times article:
How have you been able to draw on your experience and bring it to bear on a problem like what happened at LAX?
Motevalli: Recently, I have been involved with the Checkpoint of the Future (CoF) initiative coordinated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) as well as being a member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Aviation Security committee. CoF looks at passenger screening methods and how to plan ahead. Right now, you take off your shoes and jacket, empty your pockets, all that sort of thing, and this group looks at not only emerging technologies but different approaches to separate out passengers...a combination of all the things that airlines, airports (international, not just domestic) can agree on to expedite the screening process. It could be a scenario where you walk through a portal with your luggage, put the luggage on a conveyor belt, leave your jacket and shoes on and you are screened. No waiting in lines, and a much more streamlined process. Of course, some of these technologies are still being developed.
How would you categorize the US airport security in general?
Motevalli: Really, since September 11, US airport security has been at the forefront...but that doesn't mean that we always do things the best way.
Motevalli: Well, threats are perceived to be so much more acute for American airlines, so they've made things much more stringent, but as we all know, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. There are airports in other countries that have checkpoints and screening practically as soon as you enter the terminal, but if we tried that here, there would be backups and choke points that would be totally unacceptable, just because of the volume involved. What the Israelis do, for instance, works great for them but that level of intense screening can't work with a huge volume of passengers. If we tried it, we might as well just stop travel altogether.
So the model of El Al, with a protocol of asking passengers pointed, specific questions and then watching their reactions, wouldn't really work on an American scale.
Motevalli: It only works on an airline and an environment where there are point-to-point operations and not hub/spoke systems, an airline that only flies point-to-point. We would be missing all kinds of connecting flights, to a level where it would be unacceptable to travelers, due to those kinds of delays. And we don't really face the threat level that the Israelis do.
Well, there are all sorts of measures you can take in terms of intelligence to head off a larger plot, but the lone gunman is a different story?
Motevalli: That's right. It's hard to address a threat like that for a school or a mall or other public places, although an airport does have the presence of undercover officers, air marshals and other personnel. They're there, but the public doesn't know they're there, and the nut case doesn't care about that deterrent factor. People's default response is to have armed TSA agents or police at every checkpoint, but that would probably not have prevented this guy, especially someone who's suicidal to start with.
This starts to get even more complicated when you think about gun control issues, mental health issues and the privacy questions that go along with that, all really large societal issues. And of course this is the kind of thing that gets a lot of news and sparks debate – a single-engine Cessna airplane crash that kills one person gets far more press than a car accident that might kill several people, even though car crashes are far, far more frequent. Really, we are going through one of the safest periods in civil aviation, ever.
You also have to remember that airports are huge centers of economic activity in a community, with shopping, food and bars, all things that generate a lot of money, and airports are very sensitive about the balance between security and their bottom line.
So the LAX shooter was gunning specifically for TSA agents and was not going to be deterred. How do you head off someone like that before they have a chance to make it to screening?
Motevalli: It's very, very difficult. One of the biggest headaches airlines have is workplace violence at the hands of a disgruntled employee, for instance, or theft or security breaches. An employee can probably circumvent security if he's determined enough – can you have metal detectors, gun-sniffing dogs, armed guards at every mall? Post office? No.
Too often, these types of things are handled as a reaction, looking at vulnerabilities of security. For instance, after 9/11 and the creation of the TSA, screening processes changed, creating very long lines at checkpoints – and creating a much softer target than the airplane itself. There just aren't any easy answers, and now we screen everybody – eight-year old kids, star athletes, old ladies, senators, it doesn't matter.
What about visual or behavioral cues? A person who's sweaty, nervous, agitated, that sort of thing?
Motevalli: Yes, but that's not really that accurate either – an individual might be nervous or sweaty because he's late for a flight, having trouble at work, generally stressed. There's facial recognition technology and surveillance that can observe these cues, or can be used to recognize someone who's on a watch list...but then there are privacy issues again. You can have psychologically-trained agents in the terminal who can keep an eye out and maybe approach someone who's showing those cues to ask, " are you okay, how are you feeling, where are you going," but again that gets pretty touchy because you open issues of profiling.
There are well-documented studies that if we profile by specific ethnicities, then terrorists groups are going to change their strategies and recruit people from outside that ethnicity. It's short-sighted, fundamentally and in principle.
It all comes down to the balance between security and people's fundamental rights, the things that made this country great, and your sense of proportion. Statistically it's so much more dangerous to cross the street or drive to work than it is to fly and possibly be killed in a terror attack.
It's so hard for people to square that up, though, after something like this LAX attack happens.
Motevalli: Sure, but people have to consider how far they want to go down this road. Are people willing to have their medical records scrutinized for signs of mental illness, as in a possible lone-nut gunman? Especially since that information, if available, could be open to abuse? Can you always prevent someone robbing your house? Someone who's skilled can get around the best security system.
Perhaps the best defense against threats, international or domestic, is hard, actionable intelligence that gives you a chance to get out in front of a threat before it happens. If it's a small threat, it becomes an issue of how many small things you want to move on and prevent. You can't, for instance, protect every elementary school or mall or movie theater in the country against every deranged person.