Delay, Dilute and Discard: How the Airline Industry and the FAA Have Stymied Aviation Security Recommendations

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Executive Summary

Congress will soon enact legislation to improve aviation security. This legislation may allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to manage new and existing authority for assuring aviation security. This new Public Citizen report reveals why that would be a bad idea. In recent years, the airline industry and the FAA have combined to stall, scale back and ignore specific security recommendations made by a 1996 presidential commission.

In addition, the airline industry may have forestalled more action on the part of Congress and the White House through its aggressive lobbying and campaign contributions most of which have come in the form of unlimited "soft money" contributions to political party leaders.

Through an extensive investigation of the FAA rulemaking process and a careful examination of the docket for proposed rules Public Citizen s report exposes the following about the industry s and FAA s roles in delaying, diluting and discarding security improvements:

  • The 1996 presidential commission (created after the TWA 800 crash and known as the Gore Commission after its chairman, then Vice President Al Gore) recommended reasonable, affordable improvements. Yet the FAA has spent the last five years converting some of these recommendations into watered-down rules more favorable to the industry.
  • The FAA failed to meet deadlines mandated by Congress on two of the three rules Public Citizen examined.
  • The Gore Commission recommended several measures to improve screening company performance, including a national job grade structure for screeners, meaningful measures to reduce high turnover rates and reward screeners for good performance, and for the airlines to hire screening companies on the basis of performance, not the lowest bid. But the proposed FAA rule did not require any of these measures and would allow airlines to still hire the lowest bidder, regardless of how abysmal their track record.
  • The Gore Commission called for criminal background and FBI fingerprint checks for all airport screeners and all airport and airline employees with access to secure areas. The FAA s final rule largely ignored the commission s recommendations by not requiring such checks; it only instituted job history checks for screeners. These job history checks, the FAA estimated, would lead to criminal background investigations on only 63 of the 16,996 new screeners in 1999.
  • The Gore Commission called for greater scrutiny of checked baggage, including a system to make sure checked bags "matched" passengers onboard. The industry objected to bag matching and the FAA discarded the Gore proposal as too costly even though the Gore Commission said cost should not be the determining factor in rulemaking. Furthermore, an FAA-funded study by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor showed that bag matching would only cause an average delay of seven minutes on 14 percent of flights and cost 25 cents to 52 cents per passenger.
  • The airlines often objected to the security recommendations on the basis of cost. One airline even complained about increased photocopying costs.
  • In 2000, the top nine airlines and their trade association, the Air Transport Association (ATA), spent $16.6 million lobbying the federal government in the year 2000. The same group spent $62.9 million lobbying the federal government from 1997 through 2000, the period when the federal government was trying to convert Gore Commission recommendations to regulations.
  • These airlines and the ATA employed 210 lobbyists, including 108 lobbyists with "revolving door" connections. (They worked in Congress or another branch of the federal government prior to being hired by the airlines.)
  • Of these lobbyists, 10 were former members of Congress. Two held cabinet posts as secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees the FAA. Another three held senior positions at the FAA. Fifteen lobbyists employed by the top airlines in 2000 have worked in the White House.
  • Critics complain that the FAA is too cozy with the airline industry. The top job at the FAA the FAA administrator has been filled in recent years by three people who previously worked for the airline industry. (But not the current administrator, Jane Garvey, who was director of Boston s Logan International Airport.)
  • Because of the industry s campaigns against stricter security regulations and the FAA s resulting regulatory failure, it is clear that the responsibility for overseeing any improved aviation security program enacted by Congress must be given to an agency outside the FAA. Public Citizen believes a new aviation law enforcement agency is clearly needed that is either independent of the DOT/FAA or housed at the Department of Justice. This would ensure that aviation security matters would be more insulated from airline industry pressure tactics. Unlike the FAA, this new agency would be exclusively devoted to assessing and addressing aviation security threats and to coordinating with other law enforcement agencies.

Introduction

As this report is published, the final details of new aviation security legislation are still up in the air. But Congress should make its decisions on improving security recognizing two overarching facts. First, the airline industry has a long history of opposing security recommendations handed down by two presidential commissions. Second, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has played a big part in delaying, diluting and discarding these recommendations.

This combination of industry opposition and FAA timidity was most recently evident in the fate of three new security rules recommended by a 1996 presidential commission. Five years after the commission s recommendations, the FAA is still mired in the rulemaking process thanks, in part, to industry opposition.

While keeping these security improvements in a holding pattern, the airlines and the FAA employed arguments that were sometimes callous and contrary to the facts. Public Citizen found this industry opposition and the FAA s culpability in diluting security improvements by going to the public docket for each new rule, either in electronic FAA archives, or in paper files at the agency s Washington, D.C. office. Public Citizen then unearthed the industry s stated opposition to the rules and highlighted key objections.

For example, airlines objected to one new security rule (federal certification of screening companies) on the grounds that it would impose photocopying costs on the industry. In another case (ensuring that checked bags belong to passengers onboard), several airlines complained that such checks would create unacceptable delays and costs. In fact, a study by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor showed the bag match rule would create short delays (seven minutes for a small percentage of affected flights) and cost between 25 and 52 cents per passenger.

In part, the industry has been able to obstruct safety recommendations because of its cozy relationship with the FAA. Critics have long contended that the FAA has sought more to promote the airline industry than to police it. Part of this charge stems from the fact that the top official in the FAA the FAA administrator has often come from the industry. Part of it stems from the fact that historically the FAA s stated mission has been to promote the industry.

Finally, this report suggests that the airline industry has been able to stymie security recommendations despite a terrible record of security as stated in government audits and investigations because of the industry s aggressive lobbying on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch and through its huge campaign contributions to candidates running for Congress and the White House.

Public Citizen found that the top nine airlines and their trade association, the Air Transport Association (ATA), spent $16.6 million lobbying the federal government in the year 2000. The same group spent $62.9 million lobbying the federal government from 1997 through 2000, when the federal government was working to convert several Gore Commission recommendations to regulations.

Last year alone, these airlines and the ATA employed 210 lobbyists, including 108 lobbyists with "revolving door" connections. (They previously worked in Congress or another branch of the federal government.)

Of these, 10 lobbyists were former members of Congress. Two held cabinet posts as secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees the FAA. Three held senior positions in the FAA. Fifteen lobbyists employed by the top airlines in 2000 had worked in the White House. These connections have given the industry a powerful voice in federal government particularly when the lobbyists were backed by $10.9 million in campaign contributions from 1997 to 2000.

Most of these contributions $6.6 million or 61 percent came in the form of "soft money," which are unlimited contributions given to party committees run by party leaders, who determine the congressional and White House legislative agenda.

Because of the industry s campaigns against stricter security regulations and the FAA s resulting regulatory failure, it is clear that the responsibility for establishing and overseeing any improved aviation security program enacted by Congress must be given to an agency outside the FAA.

Public Citizen believes a new aviation law enforcement agency is clearly needed that is either independent of the DOT/FAA or housed at the Department of Justice. This would ensure that aviation security matters would be more insulated from airline industry pressure tactics. Unlike the FAA, this new agency would be exclusively devoted to assessing and addressing aviation security threats and to coordinating with other law enforcement agencies. While the FAA would continue to specialize in establishing and enforcing standards to ensure that planes are flightworthy and air travel is safe from human and mechanical error, this new agency would have a singular focus on the numerous issues related to law enforcement and aviation security.

I. FAA Captured by the Industry It Regulates

When Congress makes a new law, that legislation must be translated into enforceable rules or regulations. This rulemaking is handled by regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Through their constant contact with industry representatives and the movement of agency staff to industry and its lobbying firms in the private sector, these regulatory agencies sometimes become too friendly with the industry or industries they oversee.

Among those who study the development of federal regulations like Tom McGarity, a University of Texas law professor and author on the subject,1 it is said that these watchdog agencies "can over time be captured by the industry. "2 The most common result of this "capture" is that regulators seek industry consensus before imposing new rules and see themselves as partners with the industry rather than overseers.

Industry "capture" results in weaker rules, pro-industry cost-benefit analyses, and delays in rulemaking sometimes allowed for purely frivolous extensions of time sought by industry.

That s the problem at the FAA, according to some critics and it s been a problem for many years. "When you work shoulder to shoulder, you can t be at arm s length," said James Burnett, a critic of the FAA when he was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).3

Below are three security rules recently proposed by the FAA. All three rules stem from recommendations made by the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, which was appointed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. (Also known as the "Gore Commission," after its chairman, then Vice President Al Gore, the commission released initial proposals on Sept. 5, 1996 and followed up with final recommendations on Feb. 12, 1997. Ironically, several key Gore Commission recommendations were also made by a 1990 presidential commission that was created after the Pan Am 103 disaster, but were never implemented.)

In each case, the rule proposed by the FAA was weaker than the original Gore Commission recommendation a reflection, critics say of the industry s "capture" of the FAA. And in each case, the industry continued to object to the weaker rule, and sought to dilute it even further. (Two of the three final rules still have not been issued, so it s difficult to know whether the industry succeeded in further diluting the already-softened rule. See Appendix A for a side-by-side analysis of the three Gore Commission recommendations, the FAA proposed or final rules, and the differences between the two. See Appendix B for a list of Gore Commission members.)

Jim Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001 and a member of the Gore Commission, agrees with Public Citizen that "the rules got all diluted."4 How did it happen particularly after President Clinton ordered in 1996 new security measures applied to "every plane, every cabin, every cargo hold, every time"?5

"The airports, the airlines and the government didn t want to pay for it," Hall told Public Citizen. "I think the three of them had a common interest and unfortunately there wasn t much of a follow up from the White House or consumer groups."6

A. Certification of Screening Companies

Gore Commission Recommendation:

The Gore Commission sought to increase the professionalism of airport security employees, particularly passenger screeners. The need was painfully obvious. Test after test by the FAA and the General Accounting Office (GAO) the investigative arm of Congress showed that a dangerous percentage of investigators carrying weapons were not detected by screeners. In 1987 FAA tests, screeners failed to detect weapons in up to 20 percent of the tests. Tests in subsequent years showed the failure rate climbing, according to a recent GAO report.7 "Furthermore," the GAO reported, "the recent tests show that as tests become more realistic and more closely approximate how a terrorist might attempt to penetrate a checkpoint, screeners ability to detect dangerous objects declines even further."8 Now, information on security tests is designated as "sensitive" and cannot be publicly released.9

The GAO pinpointed two main reasons for the screeners poor performance: high turnover (often above 100 percent a year at large airports) and low pay (often the minimum wage).10

The Gore Commission, among other things, suggested: a) a national grade structure, presumably aimed at standardizing pay, retaining workers and enhancing professionalism; b) national and regional competitions to identify high-quality security teams; and c) an agreement by airlines to hire screening companies on the basis of performance, not just lowest cost.

Unfortunately, almost five years later the rule on screener certification still was not completed. "Everybody agreed that it was a good idea. But it takes five years to implement what seems like a no-brainer," said Bob Monetti, a member of the consumer advocacy group, National Air Disaster Alliance, and a member of the FAA Aviation Security Advisory Committee since 1989.11

The weaker FAA rule:

The final rule still has not been released. (It was withheld by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks.) But it s clear from the FAA s proposed rule that it was going to be significantly more lax than the Gore Commission recommendation.

Specifically, the proposed rule does not include measures that might help retain workers, such as a national rank and grade structure. Nor does the rule require competitions to identify high-quality security teams. The FAA also failed to propose meaningful measures to reduce turnover rates and reward employees for good performance. Perhaps most importantly, under the FAA proposed rule, screening contracts still could be awarded on the basis of the low bidder, rather than the performance.

Instead, the FAA proposed rule would merely require that those who trained screeners have 40 hours of experience as a screener. It also would require that screeners pass an annual FAA test and have 40 hours of on-the-job training before they exercise independent judgment. The proposed rule also called for screening companies to store their certification paperwork on-hand at airports.

It s also unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising that the FAA didn t propose minimum salaries and benefits for screeners. The FAA knew the impact that improved wages and benefits might have because the FAA did a joint test with an unnamed European country which found that screeners in that country who received significantly more training, pay and benefits than their American counterparts scored twice as well in performance tests.12

It should be noted that the FAA missed the May 31, 2001 deadline mandated by Congress for release of this final rule.

Industry Opposition:

Airlines still objected to the much-weakened proposed rule in written comments to the FAA. The most common objection and consistently offered without any estimated costs or figures was that such regulations would be a significant administrative and financial burden.

Another common complaint was that the standard 60-day compliance deadline for implementing the final rules was unreasonable. The Air Transport Association (ATA, a collective lobbying arm for the leading passenger and cargo airlines) cited the 60-day deadline as a chief concern. Complaints also were made about the proposals requiring that trainers have 40 hours of screening experience, that screeners pass an annual FAA test and have 40 hours of on-the-job training before they exercise independent judgment, and that screening companies store their certification paperwork at the airports.

Specific examples of airline industry objections to the remaining requirements in the rule include:

  • United Express, May 1, 2000

United Express objected to the requirements that trainers have 40 hours of actual experience and screeners pass a test. The airline claimed it would "put an unnecessary time and record keeping constraint on an already extremely busy [customer service training] department."13

  • Midway Airlines, April 26, 2000

Midway Airlines objected to the certification paperwork requirement as a financial and administrative burden; stated that the 60-day deadline was not enough time to comply; balked at the 40 hours of experience rule for instructors; and disagreed with the requirement that each carrier oversee the companies screening on its behalf.14

  • Air Transport Association, April 4, 2000

The ATA said airlines could not comply within 60 days (although they had known for years the rule was in the works) and protested the 40-hour training requirement.15 ATA also asked for an extension of the comment period, which was granted by the FAA, and a public hearing that the ATA then failed to attend. (Requesting hearings and extensions of comment periods is sometimes used by industries in the rulemaking process to further delay new regulations. "In situations in which procedural delay works to the economic advantage of a regulated industry, it is not uncommon for companies and their trade associations to demand all of the procedures that the law allows, whether or not the procedures are likely to yield useful information," explains McGarity.16)

  • Alaska Airlines, April 25, 2000

Alaska Airlines stated that the "requirement of having copies of screening company operations specifications at each airport is an added cost and appears to be unnecessary."17

B. Employment History, Verification and Criminal History Records Check

Gore Commission Recommendation:

The Gore Commission recommended criminal background checks and FBI fingerprint checks for all screeners and all airport and airline personnel with access to secure areas. The Gore Commission wanted these criminal checks for existing employees as well as new hires.

The rationale for the recommendation seemed obvious. Employees with criminal records might be more easily bribed, compromised and convinced to allow a package on a plane, and that package could be a bomb. The importance of this security measure was emphasized in the final report of the Gore Commission: "Given the risks associated with the potential introduction of explosives into these (airport) areas& screeners and employees with access to secure areas should be subject to criminal background checks and FBI fingerprint checks."18

Moreover, the threat of a terrorist strike against airlines was increasingly seen as likely. Terrorism experts, such as Gore Commission member Brian Michael Jenkins, said the threat "is real and it is high."19 The FAA acknowledged as much in 1996, when FAA policy director Tony Fainberg said, "We believe now that the threat is considerably greater than it used to be."20

The weaker FAA rule:

Issued on November 24, 1998, the FAA s final rule did not require mandatory criminal checks for all screeners and all personnel with access to secure areas as suggested by the Gore Commission. Instead the rule merely extended to screeners the limited employment history verification/background check that already was applied to employees with access to secure areas. This two-part process begins with an examination of an applicant s employment history. A FBI criminal/fingerprint check is initiated only if there are employment gaps or other discrepancies. The FAA estimated in 1998 that criminal background checks were occurring in 0.4 percent of cases (that s less than one-half of one percent).

This meant, according to the FAA s estimates, that only 63 of 16,996 new screeners in 1999 would require FBI background investigations.21 This is a far cry from the Gore Commission s directive.

The director of security for the U.S. Department of Transportation listed a series of complaints about the weak FAA rule in a letter to the FAA before it finalized the rule. The DOT memo told the FAA that its proposed rule was vague (as to what kind of "inconsistencies" in job history would trigger an FBI check), that it contained no check for applicants who might lie about their backgrounds, that it did not attempt to identify individuals who were affiliated with potentially dangerous groups (but had not been convicted of a crime), and that it did not include a credit check (i.e. for individuals in financial problems who might be susceptible to a bribe).22

In addition, the FAA rule did not cover existing employees, only new hires.

Industry Opposition:

There is a long history of industry opposition to background checks a history that predates the 1998 FAA rule. Indeed, one of the industry s great lobbying victories was its ability to delay and dilute the original background check law passed by Congress in 1990 as part of the Aviation Security Improvement Act. That rule, which finally took effect five years after Congress passed the law, applied to personnel with access to secure areas, but not screeners. It was weakened by an intense industry campaign to have it apply only to new hires, not existing employees. The industry s lobbying effort to soften the law was led by former FBI director William Webster, a paid airline lobbyist who dismissed background checks as a "feckless gesture" in his testimony to Congress and visits to key lawmakers such as Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), former chairman of a House aviation subcommittee.23

Specific industry objections to the 1998 rule found in the public docket include:

  • TWA argued in a May 19, 1997 letter that background checks for those existing employees would only create administrative and financial burdens. "These employees have had a 5-year verification of their employment history," TWA said. "Their continued employment indicates that they have been good employees and do not pose a threat to aviation security. This proposed requirement would not do anything to increase aviation security. It would only add unnecessary costs and paperwork to the industry."24

The FAA capitulated and removed the language contained in the proposed rule that would have required new background checks for some existing employees, as well as new employees. Instead, existing employees were exempted from the rule s new background check requirement.

  • In its proposed rule the FAA sought comment on expanding the scope of this background check to apply to those who also screened cargo and baggage. The ATA objected in a May 19, 1997 letter: "It is not necessary to expand this rule beyond the scope of the existing requirement& "25 The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) also objected in a May 19, 1997 letter: "The people who are candidates for jobs as screeners, caterers, baggage handlers, fuel truck operators, and other aviation services positions do not typically have a long job history at a single domestic employer& Most of the previous employers had minimal record-keeping and a supervisory workforce that was only nominally less mobile& Unfortunately, the FAA s employment background rules do not recognize this reality."26

The FAA dropped the idea.

C. Security of Checked Baggage

Gore Commission Recommendation:

"Bag matching" requires that every bag that goes on a plane has a corresponding passenger onboard. This can be accomplished by bar-coding baggage and boarding passes; if a boarding pass is not collected for a checked bag, then there s an instant delay and the baggage in question is removed. Such a system might have saved Pan Am 103, the 747 jumbo jet that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing all 270 passengers and crew onboard. The bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 was put onboard in a radio that was not owned by, or checked to any passenger.

Bag matching is now performed on virtually all international flights,27 but it s still not done on domestic flights in the U.S. because airlines argue it would cause too many delays in connecting flights.

The facts say otherwise, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Arnold Barnett, who conducted a study for the FAA. Barnett s study in May 1997 involved 11 airlines, 8,000 flights and 732,000 passengers (including 196,000 who were making connecting flights). The study showed that bag matching would delay one of every seven domestic flights for an average of seven minutes each; the cost would be 25 cents to 52 cents per passenger (depending on the extent to which gate staffing would grow in response to bag matching).28 As the study noted, "this cost is small relative to the $3 tax per enplanement collected by many U.S. airports for local improvements, and to the surcharge of $1.20 per enplanement (in 1998 dollars) imposed in the early 1970s when metal detectors were installed at airports to prevent hijackings."29

The Gore Commission discovered just how persuasive the airline industry could be when the commission took on the issue of bag matching. In its initial recommendations of September 5, 1996, the Gore Commission called for full passenger bag matching at selected airports within 60 days to determine the best means of implementing the process system-wide. After a rash of industry objections, the final Gore Commission recommendation was weakened; the 60-day plan was withdrawn and the final recommendation called for the FAA to establish security enhancements that should include explosion detection devices, bag matching, passenger profiling, and bomb-sniffing canine teams.

The weaker FAA rule:

The FAA was poised to release the final rule when the September 11, 2001 attacks caused the Bush administration to pull it back; thus, it s not clear what the final rule will require. What is known is that: a) the FAA missed by a year the October 10, 2000 deadline for release of this final rule that was mandated by Congress; b) the proposed rule is constructed in a way that gives discretion to the airlines to choose the least protective option a database that profiles passengers who might be dangerous, known as a computer assisted profiling system or CAPS; and c) the FAA appeared to go against one of the fundamental tenets of the Gore Commission while proposing the rule.

The FAA used the cost to industry of bag matching as justification to shoot down a top-notch safety standard. Specifically, the FAA acknowledged that one proposal 100 percent bag matching (until explosion detection devices were phased-in) was most effective at deterring threats. But the FAA rejected the proposal (known as "Alternative 3") on the basis of cost:

"Alternative 3 would be more effective in countering the threat, but the FAA does not believe that the incremental increase in security provided by Alternative 3 is worth the additional cost of this Alternative about $4 billion more than the proposed rule [over 10 years]."30

The Gore Commission was clear in recognizing that such cost-benefit analysis should not be the deciding factor regarding important security standards: "Cost considerations and mathematical formulas, however, should never be dispositive in making policy determinations regarding aviation safety; they are one input for decision-making."31

Industry Opposition:

The industry has long been opposed to bag-matching on domestic flights, going so far as to tell the FAA that it would cripple airlines and put them out of business.32 One airline executive even argued that bag-matching would mean "the terrorists just won, because their goal is to disrupt our society." Brian Jenkins, the terrorism expert on the Gore Commission, didn t believe the industry s claims: "What is extraordinary is the airlines now can get a kosher meal to a man sitting in seat 23C& and the same airline is saying that matching a bag with a passenger would destroy the system."33

The industry reacted swiftly and strongly to the Gore Commission s initial September 5, 1996 recommendation that called for implementing bag matching on domestic flights within 60 days or right around the time that Clinton and Gore would be asking voters to re-elect them.

The industry promptly launched a lobbying campaign aimed at the White House. Two weeks later, Gore backpedaled from the 60-day deadline in a letter to the ATA. "I want to make it very clear that it is not the intent of this administration or of the commission to create a hardship for the air transportation industry," Gore wrote.34

"I think there was a lot of pressure from the airline industry that played into that," former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall told Public Citizen.35

The day after Gore wrote his letter, the airlines started to contribute heavily to Democratic Party committees, such as the Democratic National Committee, which acts as an arm of the presidential campaign during election years. In the election s closing weeks, the airlines gave the Democratic Party $585,000 which was more than twice what the airlines gave Democrats in a preceding 10-week period.36

The airline industry continued to object to the weaker bag matching proposal advanced by the final Gore Commission recommendation during the FAA rulemaking process. Specific objections included.

  • Alaska Airlines, August 10, 1999

"The proposed options are either not possible with existing technology, or will definitely result in substantial flight delays. The operational and economic impact of applying [bag match] for connecting passengers is enormous."37

  • Air Transport Association of America, August 17, 1999

"[W]e do not believe a regulatory approach is appropriate& The significant operational and economic impact of applying PPBM [positive passenger bag matching] is undisputed and cannot be overemphasized, and is not a viable option at hub airports."38

  • Era Aviation, August 17, 1999

"[W]e must say that the Status Quo is the best option. The current system is working."39

  • Southwest Airlines, August 17, 1999

"Southwest believes that the benefits and costs of all such new measures must be clearly reviewed, and consideration must be given to allowing alternative, less onerous means of providing the desired security that are appropriate to a particular air carrier s nature and scope of operations."40

  • Trans World Airlines, August 9, 1999

"We believe that the options proposed by the FAA do not give industry the latitude to operate a reliable schedule& If we were also required to support bag match at our hubs, we would be required to expend a great deal more in equipment and manpower. We do not believe that this is justified, nor do we believe that this option provides that American public with the highest level of security."41

II. The FAA Conflicting Mission, Revolving Door, Low Morale

Steve Elson worked on the front lines of airport security. More accurately, Elson worked behind the lines. For three years, he was part of the FAA s "Red Team," a group of government agents paid to covertly test airport security, often by posing as passengers carrying weapons.

Elson, a former Navy Seal, says he was 100 percent successful in his 50 to 60 attempts at sneaking a replica of a bomb through airport security.42 In addition, the FAA hired an outside contractor in 1998 to test security and that firm was successful in getting through security in 99 percent of its 450 tests.43 The Department of Transportation inspector general reported to Congress in April 2000 that its employees successfully penetrated security at airports in 117 of 173 attempts (68 percent). Yet FAA management specifically Cathal Flynn, then the associate administrator for civil aviation security told a Senate subcommittee in April 2000 that airport security stopped 96 percent of the FAA s attempts to penetrate aircraft.44

Why the huge discrepancy? According to the DOT, it s because the FAA used a different criteria than the DOT inspector general (boarding aircraft for more than three minutes without being challenged, while not all DOT tests involved boarding aircraft or staying on the aircraft for any period of time).45 The real point, Elson maintains, is that the FAA misled Congress about the strength of airport security.

"It s a simple fact that almost anybody can go through security at will. The FAA knows, the IG knows, Congress knows. The rest is a fa├žade. The FAA is more concerned with self-aggrandizement than security," Elson told Public Citizen. "The airlines are a business and if the FAA keeps telling them they re doing fine, where s the incentive for airlines to spend money?"46

Elson was so frustrated by the FAA s poor management and inability to fix problems that he quit in 1999. He s not the only one with such a view. Brian Sullivan was a former special agent for the FAA in New England. After he retired in January 2001, Sullivan helped a TV investigative reporter penetrate the lax security at Boston s Logan International Airport. "Everyone has documented this for years. The FAA knew the system didn t work and they ve known it for years," Sullivan told Public Citizen.47

Many employees who remain at the FAA are frustrated by what they consider favoritism, poor decision-making, and a failure to reconcile conflicts within the agency. The FAA conducted a major job satisfaction survey of employees that was published March 2, 2001. While no specific questions were asked about the FAA s coziness with the industry, the survey still suggests that FAA management has serious problems in the eyes of its personnel, particularly those who work in security. (See Appendix C for more details about the FAA employee surveys.)

  • Of the 733 FAA security personnel who responded to the survey, only 14 percent agreed with the statement: "Corrective actions are taken to deal with supervisors or managers who perform poorly."
  • Only 28 percent of FAA security personnel agreed with the statement, "Decisions in my organization are made at those levels where the most adequate and accurate information is available."
  • The survey of all FAA employees showed that only 17 percent agreed with the statement, "Promotions in my organization are given to those who are well qualified." The results were even worse at the Houston FAA office where Elson worked not one single employee agreed with that statement.
  • Only 23 percent of FAA employees agreed with the statement: "I trust FAA management." No one in the Houston office agreed.

Some of the FAA s internal dissent may stem from the agency s seemingly conflicted mission. The FAA was charged with two official tasks: protecting passengers and promoting the industry. Obviously, the dueling missions clash in areas of security and cost, as the previous section of this report shows. The problem appeared so bad to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) that he sponsored a bill in 1996 to eliminate the agency s stated mission of promoting the industry. (The bill was incorporated into larger legislation.48) DeFazio said his bill was needed to correct an attitude at the FAA that allowed rulemaking to be dragged out as the agency considers airlines complaints about the cost of safety rules.49

Mary Schiavo, the former DOT inspector general, said DeFazio s legislation had little impact on the FAA. She characterized the agency response to it as, " We are not changing the way we do business. "50

Bill Vincent, a former FAA security chief, resigned in protest over the agency s coziness with the industry. Vincent recently explained: "Although the agency is skilled in the rhetoric of safety, it routinely balances safety and security against their effect on the cost and efficiency of air travel. Moreover, the FAA is heavily influenced by the airlines and others who have strong interests in moving people through the system as quickly as possible. Consequently, safety and security rules tend to get watered down and are often implemented only after a tragedy has occurred."51

Sullivan, the former FAA agent in Boston, put it more succinctly: "You can t promote the industry and kick it in the butt at the same time."52

The coziness between the industry and the FAA is manifest in the fact that three recent FAA administrators the top post in the agency have come from the industry.

David Hinson (FAA administrator 1993-1996) was founder and chief executive officer of Midway Airlines before coming to the FAA. Linda Hall Daschle wife of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) worked for the ATA, the airline lobbying group, before she served as the FAA s deputy administrator from 1993 to 1996 and the acting administrator for a brief period in 1996 and 1997. And T. Allan McArtor was a top executive for Federal Express before and after he served as FAA administrator from 1987 to 1989. (Current administrator Jane Garvey was director of Logan International Airport in Boston, which has been criticized for its lax security.)

The revolving door keeps spinning. Daschle, for instance, went from the ATA to the FAA and now is back lobbying for Northwest and American airlines.

III. One of Washington s Most Powerful Lobbies

The airline industry has paid handsomely and employed lobbyists strategically to cultivate its influence in Washington, D.C.

The top nine U.S. airlines and their trade association, the ATA, alone spent $62.9 million in the last four years lobbying Congress, the DOT, the FAA, and the White House, including $16.6 million in 2000. (See Appendix D)

Last year alone, the industry employed 210 different lobbyists, including 108 who had worked in Congress or another branch of the federal government. The list of major lobbying firms working for the airlines reads like a who s who of K Street, from Verner, Liipfert to Barbour Griffith & Rogers to Patton Boggs. (See Appendix E)

The roster of well-connected airline lobbyists who are former members of Congress includes former U.S. senators Dale Bumpers (D-Ark./United), Wendell Ford (D-Ky./Delta), and Bob Packwood (R-Ore./Northwest). (See Appendix F)

Airline lobbyists also include two former secretaries of the U.S. Department of Transportation: James Burnley IV (1987-1988), who lobbied for American Airlines last year, and William Coleman, Jr. (1975-1977), who lobbied for US Airways last year. Donald Bliss, the top lawyer at the DOT in 1976-1977, also lobbied for U.S. Airways in 2000. (See Appendix G)

The airlines can also count on at least three lobbyists with strong connections to the FAA: Linda Daschle (American and Northwest) who was Deputy and Acting Administrator at the FAA from 1993 to 1997; E. Tazwell Ellett (ATA) who was chief counsel at the FAA from 1985 to 1988; and Albert Randall (American and Northwest), who was also a top lawyer at the FAA from 1977 to 1997.

The roster of White House alumni who lobbied for the airline industry in 2000 includes: Haley Barbour (ATA), director of political affairs during the Reagan administration; Ken Duberstein (United), chief of staff for Ronald Reagan; Harold Ickes (United), deputy chief of staff for Bill Clinton; Nick Calio (American), now President Bush s top liaison to Congress; Lanny Griffith (ATA) who was a special assistant in the Bush I administration; and Kim McKernan, who was an aide in the Bush I administration and a special assistant to Dick Cheney when he was secretary of defense.

The industry s ties to key staff from Congress are just as deep. In 2000, the industry employed three lobbyists who were former aides to Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Penn.), the former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The industry also employed ex-aides to former House Speakers Thomas "Tip" O Neill and Newt Gingrich and former aides to current Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who is also the former chairman and ranking Democrat of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. (See Appendix H)

The industry s influence shouldn t wane in the future. Newly registered lobbyists in 2001 include:

  • Paul Brown (Northwest), a former floor assistant to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
  • Jim Johnson (Delta), a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
  • Steven O. Palmer (Northwest), former assistant secretary for government affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Clinton administration (as well as a former senior staff member of the influential Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees the airlines).
  • Jack Schenendorf (United), who was chief of staff for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 1995 to 2001 (and spent a total of 20 years working for the committee); Schenendorf also served as Department of Transportation coordinator for the Bush-Cheney Transition Team.

The influence of airline industry lobbyists is enhanced by the industry s aggressive campaign contributions of $6.8 million in 1999-2000 and $4.1 million in 1997-1998.53 Most of that $10.9 million was doled out in unlimited "soft money" contributions ($6.6 million), which tend to carry added weight because they go to the party committees that are controlled by party congressional and White House leaders, who set the legislative agenda of Congress and the executive branch. (See Appendix I)

The industry s soft money contributions in 1997-2000 were pretty evenly distributed, with 59 percent of the huge contributions going to Republicans (who controlled the House and Senate) and 41 percent to Democrats (who controlled the executive branch).

The industry preferred George W. Bush ($183,801) to Al Gore ($57,425) in the 2000 presidential contest54 although the airlines made sure to hedge their bets to the national party committees, which act as extensions of the presidential campaigns. The industry funneled $901,000 in soft money to the Republican National Committee (RNC) during the last election season, compared to $620,000 to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The industry followed a similar pattern in its contributions to the parties respective Senate and House fundraising committees. (See Appendix J)

The bottom line, according to Mary Schiavo, the former DOT inspector general, is that the airline industry is non-partisan when it comes to contributing and the two parties don t discriminate when it comes to their treatment of the industry. "It s a bipartisan trail of money," Schiavo told Public Citizen. "I worked for both the elder Bush and Clinton administrations. I didn t see any difference. It never cut along party lines. It cut along financial interest lines."55

The inability of the federal government to impose security improvements recommended by the Gore Commission has left Bob Monetti, whose son Rick was killed by a bomb on Pan Am 103, exasperated. "How the hell," Monetti said, "do you fight a war with rulemaking? If we d fought World War II with rulemaking we d probably still be waiting for D-Day."56


Endnotes




1. Thomas O. McGarity, "Reinventing Rationality: The Role of Regulatory Analysis in the Federal Bureaucracy," Cambridge University Press, 1991.

2. Public Citizen interview with Tom McGarity, September 26, 2001.

3. Carol Eisenberg, "FAA, Industry It Regulates Stand Shoulder to Shoulder," Newsday, December 16, 1996.

4. Public Citizen interview with Jim Hall, September 27, 2001.

5. Gaylord Shaw, "Tighter Air Security May Not Fly, FAA Bid to Change Rules After Flight 103 Blast Met Strong Head Winds," Newsday, August 14, 1996.

6. Public Citizen interview with Jim Hall, September 27, 2001.

7. General Accounting Office, GAO-01-1165T, "Aviation Security: Weaknesses in Airport Security and Options for Assigning Screening Responsibilities," September 21, 2001.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. General Accounting Office, "Aviation Security: Long-Standing Problems Impair Airport Screeners Performance," June 28, 2000.

11. Public Citizen interview with Bob Monetti, September 20, 2001.

12. Federal Aviation Administration, Notice of Proposed Rule Making, Certification of Screening Companies, January 3, 2000, page 19.

13. Written Comments of United Express, before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA-1999-6673, May 1, 2000.

14. Written Comments of Midway Airlines, before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA-1999-6673, April 26, 2000.

15. Written Comments of the Air Transport Association, before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA-1-999-6673, April 4, 2000.

16. Public Citizen interview with Tom McGarity, September 26, 2001.

17. Written Comments of Alaska Airlines, before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA-1999-6673, April 25, 2000.

18. White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, "Final Report to President Clinton," February 12, 1997, page 22.

19. Ibid.

20. Carol Eisenberg and Jessica Kowal, "Airport Security: A Decade of Debate, But Still Many Gaps in the Safety Net," Newsday, December 15, 1996.

21. Federal Aviation Administration, Office of Aviation Policy and Plans Operations, Regulatory Analysis Branch, "Final Regulatory Evaluation, Regulatory Flexibility Determination, Trade Impact Assessment, and Unfunded Mandates Determination," July 1998, page 1 of the Appendix.

22. Lee Privett, Acting Director, Office of Security and Administrative Management, U.S. Department of Transportation, Memorandum to Office of the Chief Counsel, FAA, Rules Docket (AGC-200), Docket No. 28859.

23. Walter V. Robinson and Glen Johnson, "Airlines fought security changes," The Boston Globe, September 20, 2001.

24. Written comments from Trans World Airlines before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Employment History Verification and Criminal Records Check contained in the Docket No. FAA 1997-28859, May 19, 1997.

25. Written Comments of Air Transport Association Before the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Washington, D.C., Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regarding Employment History Verification and Criminal Records Check, Docket No. 28859, May 19, 1997.

26. Written Comments of National Air Transportation Association Before the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Washington, D.C., Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regarding Employment History Verification and Criminal Records Check, Docket No. 28859, May 19, 1997.

27. Arnold Barnett et al., "Safe At Home? An Experiment in Domestic Airline Security," published in Operations Research, March-April 2001.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Federal Aviation Administration, 99-5536-2, Draft Regulatory Impact Analysis, "Security of Checked Baggage on Flights Within the United States," Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Office of Aviation Policy and Plans, April 1999, page 39.

31. White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, "Final Report to President Clinton," February 12, 1997, page 11.

32. Carol Eisenberg, "Unmatched Performance, Unaccompanied Bags and the Lesson of Pan Am 103," Newsday, December 16, 1996. (Former FAA security chief Billie Vincent recalls that airline officials told him, "We can t do that. That will shut us down.")

33. Ibid.

34. Walter V. Robinson and Glen Johnson, "Airlines fought security changes," The Boston Globe, September 20, 2001.

35. Public Citizen interview with Jim Hall, September 28, 2001.

36. Center for Responsive Politics and Walter V. Robinson and Glen Johnson, "Airlines fought security changes," The Boston Globe, September 20, 2001.

37. Written Comments for Alaska Airlines, before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA 1999-5536, August 10, 1999.

38. Written Comments for Air Transport Association, before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA 1999-5536, August 17, 1999.

39. Written Comments for Era Aviation, Inc., before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA 1999-5536, August 17, 1999.

40. Written Comments for Southwest Airlines, before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA 1999-5536, August 17, 1999.

41. Written Comments for Trans World Airlines, Inc., before the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Matter of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Certification of Screening Companies contained in Docket No. FAA 1999-5536, August 9, 1999.

42. Public Citizen interview with Steve Elson, September 20, 2001.

43. CBS News, 60 Minutes, "How Secure Are Our Airports?" September 16, 2001.

44. Statement of Cathal Flynn, Associate Administrator for Civil Aviation Security, Before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Subcommittee on Aviation, April 6, 2000.

45. Statement of Alexis Stefani, Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, U.S. Department of Transportation, Before the Subcommittee on Aviation, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, U.S. Senate, April 6, 2000.

46. Public Citizen interview with Steve Elson, September 20, 2001.

47. Public Citizen interview with Brian Sullivan, September 26, 2001.

48. The intent of Rep. DeFazio's bill was folded into the FAA Reauthorization Act of 1996. This bill designated that aviation safety and security become the FAA administrator's "highest priorities" and "repeals the duty of the administrator to promote" air commerce. The law as it was written in Title 49, Section 401, substituted ''encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology'' for ''promoting, encouraging, and developing civil aeronautics."

49. Air Safety Week, "House Bill Would Make Safety FAA s Top Job," July 22, 1996.

50. Public Citizen interview with Mary Schiavo, September 18, 2001.

51. Bill Vincent, opinion column, The Washington Post, September 25, 2001.

52. Public Citizen interview with Brian Sullivan, September 26, 2001.

53. Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org)

54. Ibid.

55. Public Citizen interview with Mary Schiavo, September 18, 2001.

56. Public Citizen interview with Bob Monetti, September 20, 2001.


Link to Appendicies A-J