TSA Assesses U.S. Airport Risk, Missile Threat

Extra security measures implemented at more than 50 of the nation’s 429 airports.
Moses Frenck

The Transportation Security Administration has implemented extra security measures at more than 50 of the nation’s 429 airports that it believes are more likely to be targeted by terrorists.

Moreover, new security measures are being put in place at 20 of the nation’s busier airports to protect against the threat of shoulder-fired missile attacks on commercial airliners.

TSA officials would not identify the airports implementing anti-missile precautions or the beefed-up security measures, citing security concerns, but indicated they include additional random searches of contractors and food service personnel, increased undercover and uniformed officers in terminals and secure areas, 24-hour security patrols and increased surveillance of the flight paths used for takeoffs and landings. Furthermore, U.S. airlines reportedly are scrutinizing passenger lists more closely now that the United States is at war.

“TSA has put in place blanket security measures at airports for when the nation is under a ‘high’ threat level,” said TSA spokesperson Brian Turmail. “Additionally, TSA has a tailored security approach at airports around the country where the agency feels there is a need.” That approach, he said, is based on factors including the amount of airport activity, the sense of threat and the structural integrity of the airport, such as whether it is built entirely of concrete or whether the terminals, for example, are primarily glass.

Turmail said travelers can expect to see additional security measures, including more K-9 patrols by explosives-sniffing dogs in and around the terminals and on the tarmac, random visible inspections of vehicles approaching terminals-requiring drivers to open their trunks-and more PA announcements reminding passengers to be more alert and immediately report suspicious packages or behavior.

Meanwhile, a congressional panel last month supported further research into the implementation of anti-missile systems installed on commercial aircraft to deflect potential strikes. Such systems currently are installed on U.S. military aircraft, including Air Force One and other airplanes carrying senior government officials. Anti-missile countermeasures are said to be installed on Israeli commercial airliners as well.

While Homeland Security officials emphasize that they have not received information with regard to a specific threat, several lawmakers have requested that TSA assess the threat to U.S. airlines, following an unsuccessful attack in November against an Israeli passenger plane in Kenya.

“We are not aware of any credible, specific intelligence information that (missile) attacks are being planned against commercial aircraft in the U.S. at this time,” said TSA director James Loy in a statement. “The administration does, however, recognize the potential threat.”

In fact, an infantry platoon of National Guard troops last week was deployed to Los Angeles International Airport due to concerns about shoulder-fired missiles. Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn asked Gov. Gray Davis for Guard troops to stand watch outside airline terminals and “patrol the perimeter of the airport as a deterrent to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.” The platoon, comprised of about 50 troops, is responsible for security at the entrances to terminals and around the airport, including the sand dunes west of the runways, according to the governor’s office.

The House Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on March 20 held a closed-door hearing with representatives from TSA, the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Israeli Ministry of Defense and the U.S. defense industry to discuss threat assessments and missile defense options. Following the meeting, both republican and democratic congressmen expressed the need to seriously consider the issue. Subcommittee chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said he supported appropriating $30 million to research possible options.

Last month, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced the Commercial Airline Missile Defense Act of 2003 to require that anti-missile countermeasures be placed on all U.S. commercial jet aircraft beginning Dec. 31, 2003. Under the bill, which has yet to be voted on, airlines would be responsible for putting countermeasures on future aircraft. The U.S. government would pay for retrofitting the current jet fleet-approximately 6,800 aircraft-at an estimated cost of $1 million per plane.

“I understand from industry experts that it would take about six years to retrofit the entire fleet,” Boxer said in a statement. “We should do it now, and we should expedite the process. In the meantime, my bill directs the President to use the National Guard and Coast Guard to patrol airport perimeters in order to prevent attacks by shoulder-fired missiles.”

“We know now that the threat from surface-to-air missiles is real, and we know how to address it,” said Israel, who introduced a similar bill. “We shouldn’t wait until a U.S. plane is attacked to discuss what we could have done to prevent it. We know what can be done. Let’s do it now.”

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, last month also expressed his concern to TSA. “There are literally hundreds of thousands of these surface-to-air missiles around the world,” Graham said in testimony. “They are relatively easily transportable. They fit into a typical golf bag, as an example, and they are quickly reassembled.”

Because these are heat-seeking missiles, aircraft are most vulnerable at lower levels and when their engines are hottest. An attack by shoulder-fired missiles can be launched from as far away as 30 miles and reach altitudes of up to 18,000 feet, according to military estimates.

According to a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson, any civilian anti-missile system would have to receive FAA certification before it could be put into service.

(Originally published in Business Travel News April 1, 2003.)