I am writing this on September 10. Seven years ago tonight, I was the president-elect of the T.C. Williams High School PTA in Alexandria, Va., and helped preside over a ceremony honoring top students at the school. T.C. Williams is the school made famous by the movie “Remember the Titans” so there was already a lot of community pride. These days, T.C. Williams is most characterized by the fact that students from more than 80 countries attend school there. As I stood on the stage that night, I recall shaking hands with several hundred students, many of them dressed in garb from their native lands. It was an awesome experience, showing what is possible when the world is brought closer together.
Just 12 hours after that ceremony, those same students were able to actually hear the explosion at the Pentagon, as well as the later roar of fighter jets that had been summoned to help. Everything was now different.
No industry was affected quite the way aviation was. The industry was actually shut down for several days as government and the private sector rushed to figure out how it came to be that airplanes full of passengers had been turned into guided missiles; and how best to ensure it could not happen again. It is hard to recall now, but there was a lot of uncertainty out there on the 12th and the days immediately after; were there other hijackers ready to strike, would there be another wave of attacks in some other form? These uncertainties intensified during the anthrax attacks just a few weeks later.
In the weeks and months to follow, the federal government changed the whole approach to securing the aviation system. The first steps were strong ones; there was no time for a risk assessment approach. We had to move quickly, and the American people, indeed the world, had to be assured that the system would be safe.
In the years since, the government and the industry have modified the system, better able to assess and plan for risks. The initial law enforcement mentality has given way to an approach focused on securing the system while ensuring that its basic purpose — the transport of people and goods — could be accomplished. It is still not perfect. The system remains too labor intensive and not technology intensive enough. There is still more to be done to create a system that assesses and manages risk and allocates resources accordingly.
But the fact remains that much progress has been made. Kip Hawley, the Assistant Secretary of DHS in charge of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has done a remarkable job in helping move us in the right direction. One of the most important has been to realize that what works at one airport may not necessarily work at another, and that a truly secure system has to include input from the airport staff involved. In an important way, this also adds to the element of uncertainty that underlies the system, for if it is too predictable the terrorists have a better chance to figure out how to beat it.
Security is always a top priority with airport directors. I’d say that in my time here at least 75 percent of all the conversations I’ve had with directors have included some mention of security. There are a lot of good ideas in the airport community and today’s TSA has been much more open to them. In a few months there will be a new administration and new leadership at TSA. I hope that those new leaders will be able to build on what has been accomplished over these past seven years: work closely with the airport community, move forward with new technologies (these new laptop bags, for example, as well as inline baggage systems), and commit to a risk management approach that keeps us safe and allows the aviation system to perform its basic function.
Back to those kids at T.C. Williams. Many of those who were high school freshmen on September 11, 2001 are now seniors in college. The world they will live and work in is different than that which existed when they started high school. If we make the right decisions, it can be a world that is more secure than seemed possible seven years ago, but just as rich in global possibilities.