Funding, IT aimed at aviation safety

Funding, IT aimed at aviation safety

Seven of the largest airports in the country are using Visionics' Digital Biometrics FingerPrinter CMS live scan system to perform airport employee background checks.

Establishing public trust in the nation's airways isn't only a matter of national security, it's critical to the nation's economic recovery from the terror attacks. State and federal officials are pursuing the effort with IT, using new and existing funding sources to improve safety.

When President Bush signed the Aviation Security Act last month, he initiated a new era of federal and state and local cooperation. The edict federalizes baggage screeners and allows airports to charge passengers up to $2.50 per leg of a trip for security improvements.

However, the new law is just another building block in the already close relationship between airport security and federal authorities.

'Over the past five years or so, cooperation has improved,' said Duane McGray, Nashville International Airport's chief of public safety and president of the Airport Law Enforcement Agency Network (ALEAN). 'We are finding federal authorities to be more open to disseminating information more quickly, especially since Sept. 11.'

ALEAN is a nonprofit organization that brings airport law enforcement officials together to share information on security matters. It consists of 72 domestic airports, Canadian airports and England's Gatwick Airport in London, as well as agencies from the U.S. and foreign intelligence communities.

Since the terrorist attacks, McGray noted, the Federal Aviation Administration set up a secure Web board where airport authorities can access important information and check on policy changes. The FBI and FAA also share information in person more readily, he added.

Even before the terrorist attacks, airports and airlines worked with the FBI to perform background checks on new hires. The Airport Security Improvement Act of 2000 required airports and airlines to fingerprint all new employees with access to secure areas so the FBI could perform criminal record checks.

Just last month, the FAA mandated that all employees with access to secure areas go through criminal background checks. This means that the records of between 700,000 to 750,000 employees across the country must be checked through the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

Many airports are turning to electronic fingerprint systems to expedite the process.
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport bought four Digital Biometrics Finger-Printer CMS live-scan systems from Visionics Corp. of Minnetonka, Minn., last year to shorten the background checks to five days from 45 days.

Dallas/Fort Worth officials spent $250,000 on the machines and have checked out more than 9,700 employees.

'This system is a tremendous time-saver and critical to the airport, airlines and employee,' said Alvy Dodson, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Public Safety Department director. 'It takes about five minutes to record all 10 fingerprints and then we send it off to the federal government.'

Other category X airports, such as Denver, Chicago's O'Hare, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and Seattle-Tacoma, also use the system. Category X includes the largest airports or those with the greatest security risk such as Ronald Reagan Washington National in Arlington, Va. Smaller airports formerly had until 2003 to install electronic fingerprint systems, but with the new FAA mandate, many are scrambling to buy equipment now, McGray said.

Fingerprints forwarded

The FingerPrinter CMS system uses light refracted off of the peaks and valleys of a person's fingerprints to digitally record the pattern. The fingerprints are saved on a database residing on an 800-MHz Pentium III with 128M to 256M of RAM and running Linux. The system also uses a graphics accelerator component to create a high resolution image.

The airport sends the fingerprints to the Office of Management and Budget, which forwards them to the FBI for the background check. Airlines initially funded the machines, Dodson said, but the federal government may soon start paying for the equipment. Dodson points to the $2.50 passenger surcharge in the new security law as one way to fund these changes.

The Airport Improvement Programs fund is another source of grant money. The $3 billion fund has traditionally been used for construction enhancements, but with security becoming more of a priority, officials said they believe this fund will be available for upgrades.

'The FAA instructed airport development offices to prioritize security equipment in those applications,' McGray said. 'I believe any airport asking for the funds to be put toward fingerprint equipment will get approved.'

Airport officials also are considering a host of other biometrics systems besides electronic fingerprinting, McGray said.

The FAA established a working group to review the biometrics systems available and ALEAN is part of the group, McGray said.

'We are looking at the best ways to enhance security programs,' he said. 'Many of us are waiting for the working group's results before purchasing the various types of biometrics equipment.'

Dodson, on the other hand, said he is not waiting for the FAA's recommendations to equip Dallas/Fort Worth with certain technologies.

'We have seen presentations on iris scanning equipment and are looking to expand our fingerprinting capability,' Dodson said. 'Biometrics will definitely play a role in automated access control systems in the future. It acts as a double security method.'

McGray said many of these security changes are long overdue.

'The improvements will increase cooperation because of the nature of them,'
he said. 'Congress and the White House are mandating more information sharing and the new technologies will help us do that.'

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