Airline Insecurity

Federal regulators have known for years that the nation’s system of airport security was “seriously flawed.” But the FAA repeatedly placed politics and profits above the public’s safety.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

The buzzer sounded at an awkward moment for Rep. Don Young. The Alaska Republican was halfway through a press conference on October 17, explaining why he was trying to derail efforts to turn over the screening of airline passengers to federal law enforcement officers. Six days earlier, the Senate had unanimously passed a bill that would overhaul the way airports staff their metal detectors and X-ray checkpoints. Rather than relying on private security companies, whose minimum-wage workers routinely fail to detect guns and bombs, the bill called for hiring 28,000 better-paid and better-trained government agents. But Young considered this a “knee-jerk” reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks. “My wife Lu flies quite a lot, as do my two daughters,” he told reporters. “I want my family and all Americans to have the best air security possible.” Still, he added, he did not want “to tie the president’s hands and force him to hire only federal employees.”

As Young started to field questions, a mechanical screech alerted House members that they were needed across the street at the Capitol for a vote. The congressman huddled with his fellow Republicans behind the podium. “We’ll be back,” he said—and with that, he handed over the microphone to a man named Kenneth Quinn, who wasted no time blasting the Senate bill. “A nationalized approach to security is a step backward in the war against terrorism,” Quinn declared. Rather than relying on “civil servants,” he said, the government should “inspire the private sector’s competitive juices.”

Quinn was no congressional aide filling in for absent lawmakers. He works for the Aviation Security Association, a lobbying group for private screening companies. His clients, who are paid $700 million by the airlines each year to screen passengers and baggage, have been cited repeatedly for sloppy performance. Many pay their employees so little—starting wages are sometimes $11,000 a year, with few benefits—that workers must hold down two jobs to make ends meet. Almost all wind up quitting: On average, airports are forced to replace their entire screening workforces every year. In October 2000, a federal judge ordered the largest company, Argenbright Security, to pay a fine of $1 million for hiring violent felons, falsifying their background checks, and “training” the new hires with 45-minute videos. As reporters took notes at the press conference, however, Quinn declared that taking business away from companies like Argenbright would be “a huge mistake.”

A month later, Congress voted to replace private screeners with federal employees. But Young’s decision to leave a corporate lobbyist running the show underscores why airports have remained unsafe for so long. A review by Mother Jones of court documents, lobbying disclosure forms, campaign finance records, government audits, and the docket of the Federal Aviation Administration—as well as interviews with numerous experts—shows that when it comes to airline security, the aviation industry has remained firmly in control. With the cooperation of the FAA, industry leaders have scuttled or watered down just about every significant reform that has been proposed over the past dozen years, including the recommendations of two high-profile presidential commissions.

They’ve accomplished this, in part, through generous campaign contributions: The airlines gave almost $4.2 million to both political parties during the 2000 elections. They’ve also deployed a squadron of lobbyists that includes the best—and best-connected—talent that money can buy. More than half of the airline industry’s 200 lobbyists used to work on Capitol Hill or in the executive branch, including 10 former members of Congress, 2 former transportation secretaries, 3 former high-ranking FAA officials, and 15 former White House aides. Quinn was the FAA’s top lawyer under the elder President Bush. Linda Hall Daschle, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, worked for the Air Transport Association, a lobbying group composed of the major airlines, before serving as the FAA’s acting administrator under President Clinton; she now lobbies for American and Northwest airlines. All told, the top nine U.S. airlines and their lobbying group typically spend more than $15 million a year lobbying Congress, the Department of Transportation, the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the White House.

“Clearly, from my experience, the airline industry has one of the most formidable and most aggressive groups of lobbyists representing any industry,” says Senator Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican from Illinois. “In the three years that I’ve been in Washington, I don’t think I’ve seen anything the airlines favor die, or anything they oppose pass.”

Since September 11, Americans have become all too familiar with the flaws in the nation’s aviation security. Throughout the 1990s, government inspections designed to intentionally breach airport security met with extraordinary success. Federal inspectors found they could smuggle firearms, hand grenades, and bomb components past screening checkpoints at every airport they visited. They could walk onto planes and place objects in the cabins. They could get into cargo holds. In one probe conducted in 1999, they successfully boarded 117 airplanes—some filled with passengers—and were asked to show identification only one-fourth of the time. Mary Schiavo, the inspector general for the Department of Transportation from 1990 to 1996, says her office repeatedly recommended security improvements, including a system to match checked bags with onboard passengers. “The FAA simply didn’t want to hear about it,” she says. “They said since we had never had a major domestic terrorist incident against aviation, the risk was low.”

Ever since 1988, when a bomb in a suitcase destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, experts have sounded increasingly forceful alarms. “The U.S. civil aviation security system is seriously flawed and has failed to provide the proper level of protection for the traveling public,” concluded a 1990 report by the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, appointed by then-President Bush. “This system needs major reform.

The Bush commission’s report recommended dozens of new measures. It called for more rigorous training of the workers who screen passengers entering airport terminals. It proposed a system to ensure that a would-be bomber doesn’t check a suitcase full of explosives onto a plane and then fail to board himself. And, upon learning that some of the baggage clerks working for Flight 103 had criminal records, the commission recommended the FBI run background checks on everyone working at airports. “The case for mandatory criminal-record checks for airport employees is at least as compelling as for employees in industries such as securities and banking,” the panel concluded.

But the airline industry used its clout to block implementation of the new criminal-check rule. The Air Transport Association argued the measure would cost the airlines more than $1 billion, with limited effectiveness. To press its case, it hired a man who could normally be expected to advocate background checks: William Webster, the former director of the FBI and CIA. Webster argued the reform “would subject the industry to a very heavy diversion of resources” without catching would-be bombers. The lobbying worked: It took the FAA five years to adopt a rule to weed out criminals—and in the end, it required the industry to conduct background checks only on employees with access to secure areas who had long gaps in their employment histories.

Few regulatory agencies give industry lobbyists as warm a welcome as the FAA. For its first 38 years, the close relationship was codified into the law: The agency’s twofold mission was to safeguard the traveling public and to promote the aviation industry. Although Congress eliminated the FAA’s promotional role in 1996, airline executives and lobbyists continue to enjoy “direct and frequent access to the administration,” says Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues for the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

“Not only do they lobby the administration, but oftentimes they serve on advisory panels the agency puts together.” The agency frequently holds “industry days,” in which airline executives are briefed on hot issues and given an opportunity to make recommendations behind closed doors. The calendars of FAA officials are filled with appointments with lobbyists, and many of the agency’s senior employees wind up leaving to work for the private sector.

Besides Quinn and Linda Daschle, former FAA Chief Counsel E. Tazwell Ellet now lobbies for the Air Transport Association, and former Assistant Chief Counsel Albert Randall works for American and Northwest.

As a result, many officials acknowledge, the agency has come to perceive issues the same way industry does. The process begins as soon as FAA administrators are nominated. “In order to get confirmed, they have to go around kissing the rings of the powers-that-be in the industry,” says Jim Burnett, who chaired the National Transportation Safety Board under President Reagan. “It’s a process of visiting with people who have power and trying to reassure them that you will not be a threat.”

By 1995, when the FAA finally passed its rule requiring limited background checks, a leading congressional expert on airline security was growing concerned about how little progress had been made since the Lockerbie crash. That May, Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, wrote to President Clinton, urging him to convene a blue-ribbon panel to review the system from top to bottom. For a year, nothing happened. It took another air disaster to trigger the next flurry of high-level discussions.

Just before the 1996 Olympics, TWA Flight 800 went down off the coast of Long Island in what was initially believed to be a bombing or missile attack. The explosion had eerie resonances for Victoria Cummock, who had lost her husband over Lockerbie. The Miami widow, who had become an advocate for air crash victims, flew to New York to meet the families of TWA passengers. In a hangar at Kennedy Airport, she met with President Clinton, who invited her to serve on the brand-new White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. The commission would be chaired by Vice President Al Gore, lending it considerable credibility and power. It would include scientists, military experts, and high-ranking government officials. “My heart sang,” Cummock says, recalling her conversation with the president. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, thank God.'”

Her enthusiasm was short-lived. The Gore commission, as it was known, became one of the clearest examples of how politics and profit have eclipsed public safety. At their very first meeting, the commissioners were surprised to receive a pre-written set of recommendations prepared by staff members. “We were just going to rubber-stamp them,” Cummock recalls. “With each recommendation, I remember saying, ‘With all due respect, Mr. Vice President, do you realize that…?’ People were horrified that I was interrupting the flow. They kept telling me, ‘Ms. Cummock, the vice president has a press conference, then he needs to get on to other meetings.'”

Cummock didn’t know it at the time, but the commission’s initial report was a done deal before she ever saw it. A CIA memo written the day before the meeting indicates that the agency was working with the staff behind the scenes to ensure that the panel offered no dissent to the preapproved proposals. “The government members of the commission are lined up to support the recommendations,” Richard Haver, a CIA official assigned to assist the committee, reported to his agency’s director. Cummock, though, was a different matter.

“She is a very intelligent, intense, and attractive individual,” he wrote, noting that he had tried “schmoozing” her several weeks earlier. “My estimate is that she can be kept in line if she believes progress is going to result from the effort. If she believes the effort is headed in the direction of appeasing the airlines, whom she distrusts, then she could become a major problem.”

Immediately after the first meeting, Gore and his aides held press conferences to highlight the panel’s “common-sense solutions.” One of the proposals, which Cummock endorsed, was called “full bag match.” Every piece of luggage loaded onto an airplane would have to be matched to a passenger on board. Any unmatched suitcase, like the one containing the bomb that killed Cummock’s husband, would have to be removed before takeoff. The airlines claimed that matching bags would be time-consuming and expensive, but a study by the University of California, partly funded by the FAA, found that full bag match would take barely one minute per flight. “You probably won’t even notice it,” said Elaine Kamarck, one of Gore’s top political advisers, at a press briefing held on September 11, 1996.

The airlines noticed. “We were vigorously opposed to it,” says Dick Doubrava, managing director of security for the Air Transport Association. Insisting that the delays from bag matching would “impact the whole integrity of the system,” the association and its member airlines launched a full-bore lobbying campaign. They met with the commission staff. They made the rounds on Capitol Hill. They leaned on members of Congress, who in turn pressured the commission to back off. And although Kamarck insists that “the vice president never met with the industry,” officials at the Air Transport Association recall otherwise, noting that their president, Carol Hallett, had plenty of access to the White House. “She would routinely see Gore all the time,” Doubrava says.

Eight days after Kamarck’s press briefing, Gore sent a letter to Hallett backing off on his call for an immediate move toward full bag match. “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 or to cause inconvenience to the traveling public,” he wrote. Instead of sticking with the original plan to match all bags to passengers, Gore began calling for an industry-backed alternative, in which a computerized profiling system would monitor suspicious travelers and remove their bags if they failed to board planes. The new plan was blasted by security experts, who concluded it would be simple for terrorists to evade the profiling system.

The nation’s airlines wasted no time in expressing their thanks. The day after Gore’s letter, TWA sent $40,000 to the Democratic National Committee, which was headed into the final weeks of the 1996 campaign. A month later, American Airlines came through with three contributions of $83,333 made over five days—a $250,000 burst of beneficence that it has never again matched. In the last days of the push to re-elect Clinton and Gore, Democratic Party committees also raked in $83,000 from Northwest Airlines, $117,465 from United Airlines, and $15,000 from US Airways. In all, the major airlines poured more than $500,000 into various Democratic soft-money accounts in the weeks following Gore’s letter—two and a half times what they gave Republicans during the same period.

Michael Wascom, vice president of the Air Transport Association, calls the contributions “strictly coincidental.” Kamarck, the Gore political adviser, says the prospect of campaign donations had no influence on Gore’s decision to write the letter. “It didn’t make a f—ing difference,” she says. “It was October of an election year. We were 15 points ahead of Bob Dole. Everyone was giving money.” In fact, the commission’s staff seemed as intent on raising money as it was on improving airline safety. According to documents obtained by Mother Jones, campaign aides on the staff used the commission’s offices, fax machine, and letterhead to draft a speech for the Democratic National Convention and to assist Maria Hsia, the party operative later convicted in the Buddhist temple fundraising scandal. When industry executives were asked to assist the commission, the requests often came from staffers who were assisting the campaign.

As the commission kept meeting in preparation for the release of its final report, the industry continued to lean on commissioners. A few months after the election, Billie Vincent, former director of civilian aviation security for the FAA, spoke with commission member Brian Jenkins, an antiterrorism consultant whose clients included the airlines. “He was distraught,” recalls Vincent. “He related to me that somebody from the airline industry—he wouldn’t say who—had contacted him and told him they were angry with his positions. They told him he should remember how much business the airlines were giving him.”

In public hearings, commissioners sat quietly through testimony by various experts, rarely asking tough questions. In the final months, they grew even less interested in security issues after the crash of TWA Flight 800 was traced to faulty wiring rather than an act of terrorism. The FBI and CIA continued to warn the commission that serious holes remained in the security system, and Cummock urged her colleagues not to back off. When she pressed for more meaningful give-and-take on security issues, a commission staff member pulled her aside and told her that the Christmas decorations had been put up at the White House. “If you’d like,” she recalls the aide telling her, “we could arrange a VIP tour.”

When the Gore commission issued its final report in February 1997, the industry was pleased. The commission called for a slow approach to bag match, calling it a “contentious and difficult area.” It suggested private security companies be certified by the government, but made no mention of improving wages or benefits. And it gave the FAA two more years to implement FBI fingerprint checks on airport workers. The Air Transport Association praised the document as a “good compendium of the issues that the industry and the FAA and the government at large have been looking at for some time.”

Armed with the report, the FAA vowed to develop rules to accomplish the broad mandates outlined by the commission. Over the next four years, however, the airlines mounted an all-out campaign to forestall or weaken the already-diluted security proposals. The industry filed myriad objections to the rules, asking for delays and calling for public hearings. “The rule-making process is very easily manipulated by someone with a lot of money and expertise, and the airlines have that in spades,” says Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat. “Anything that would cost them money they could fight, and delay rule making for years and years.” According to Elaine Kamarck, federal regulators didn’t bother to fight back. “The FAA decided to pick its battles with the airlines,” she says. “You had a sluggish bureaucracy under pressure from the corporate world. They paid lip service, but let the rules drag on.” Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the FAA, insists the agency took the rules seriously but needed input from the airlines. “We move as fast as we can, with the understanding that we need to make sure that we’re doing it right,” he says. But according to a study by the General Accounting Office, it sometimes takes the agency 5 years or more to begin the rule-making process—and up to 15 years to complete it. All that while, says DeFazio, “the Air Transport Association, with its huge staff and budget, is working day in and day out to prevent things from happening.”

The FAA did suggest criminal-background checks on more airport employees with gaps in their employment records, including workers who screen passengers, baggage, and cargo. But the airlines claimed that vetting their current workers would be an administrative headache. “They have been good employees and do not pose a threat to aviation,” TWA argued in a letter to the FAA in May 1997. “This proposed requirement would not do anything to increase aviation security. It would only add unnecessary costs and paperwork to the industry.” The same day, a lobbying group for airport-service companies called the National Air Transportation Association weighed in, protesting that it would be difficult to run checks on baggage and cargo screeners, fuel truck operators, and other workers whose previous employers often kept few records.

In the end, the FAA narrowed its rule even further. It exempted baggage and cargo screeners from background checks, and called for checks only on new applicants for passenger-screening jobs with long employment gaps—less than 1 percent of all airport workers hired. Federal agents are now investigating the possibility that the September 11 hijackers were aided by renegade airport employees.

While the FAA did issue a modest rule on criminal checks, it issued no rule at all on another key recommendation of the Gore plan. The commission had recommended that before an airline hires a private security firm to screen passengers and baggage, the federal government must certify that the company provides minimal training for workers and periodically tests their performance. Congress ordered the FAA to create a certification rule by May 2001.

The Air Transport Association insists it has always supported screening-company certification. “There was no resistance,” says Doubrava, the group’s security chief. But a review of government dockets shows that the airlines themselves were quietly working to delay and weaken the regulation that the FAA eventually came up with. “The proposed rule will have a major economic impact on Alaska Airlines’ long-term conducting of business,” a company executive wrote to the FAA in April 2000. The letter enumerated three pages of specific objections, arguing that it would “not be cost-effective” to recertify companies every five years and adding that the airline didn’t want to be held responsible if one of its screening companies violated the law. The next day, Midway Airlines chimed in, calling it an “unnecessary burden” to require that employees have a week of full-time experience before training newcomers. And United Express said it supported screener certification—as long as the FAA exempted all existing security firms from the “rigorous application process.” In the end, the FAA missed its congressional deadline, and the rule plodded its way through the bureaucratic process without being approved.

In the first weeks after the September 11 attacks, measures that had previously been stalled were suddenly put on the fast track. FAA administrator Jane Garvey ordered criminal-history checks for all airport workers with access to secure areas. She also ordered the acceleration of a program to put in new machines to detect explosives at the nation’s largest airports. “Everything has changed,” says Takemoto, the FAA spokesman. “It’s a completely different environment. It should make it easier to accomplish things that, sadly, we would not have been able to accomplish before September 11.”

Those emergency measures, though, didn’t solve the underlying problems. A month after the hijackings, a passenger made it through the security checkpoint in New Orleans International Airport and onto a Southwest flight carrying a loaded derringer. Two weeks later, workers employed by Argenbright Security failed to detain a man who passed through a checkpoint at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with a stun gun, a can of pepper spray, and nine knives.

Nevertheless, industry officials continued to fight measures to help prevent airline terrorism, citing their concerns for the bottom line. At one recent congressional hearing, Alaska Airlines president John Kelly spoke out against a $2.50 to $3 surcharge to pay for enhanced security, suggesting the fee would scare away potential passengers. “The people do not respond to anything other than the total price,” he told the House Transportation Committee. “That is strictly supply and demand.” When Rep. DeFazio suggested that airline tickets could say “security surcharge” in large letters, Kelly remained unmoved. “People still make decisions on whether to fly based on how much it costs,” he said.

Private security companies also fought efforts to place airport screening in the hands of federal law enforcement officers. “No one would think of contracting out the FBI,” said Senator Fritz Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, during a debate in October over the Senate bill to federalize the screening workforce. “No one would ever think about contracting out the security and protection of the president.” But despite the unanimous vote in the Senate to eliminate private contractors, Republicans in the House sided with the security firms, passing an alternative bill on November 1 that would have kept the screening business in the hands of private companies unless the president ordered otherwise. Bush backed the measure, and the airlines bowed out of the fight, saying only that they no longer wanted responsibility for overseeing screeners.

On November 16, lawmakers finally agreed on a compromise to make all airport screeners federal employees. But in a nod to private screening companies, airports will be given what Rep. Don Young calls the “flexibility” to opt out of the system after three years and resume contracting with private firms.

Even with the increase in federal oversight, security experts note that it will take more than a single law to make air travel truly secure. Jim Burnett, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, says that unless federal regulators take a tougher approach—one that doesn’t place the industry’s profit margins above all else—security reforms will continue to drag on for years, stalled by industry lobbying and regulatory inaction. “If the FAA doesn’t move away from the consensus-type regulatory behavior,” he says, “we may walk away from these things with a lot of visible steps being taken, but without really having put in an effective security system.”


This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

payment methods


This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.