Movie review: Please Remove Your Shoes

July 1, 2010 - It's not a summer blockbuster with Hollywood starlets and hunks, but the new documentary Please Remove Your Shoes from executive producer Frederick Gevault takes a sobering look at persistent issues of safety and security in the U.S. aviation system. The film is being released just as John Pistole takes over the position of TSA Administrator, and perhaps the movie's exposing of failures can help galvanize Pistole and the new TSA into improving air security.

The documentary (watch the trailer), which is now available for purchase at www.pleaseremoveyourshoesmovie.com, is designed to be a revelation of the mishaps and failings of both the pre-9/11 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the subsequent creation of a behemoth organization with more than 50,000 employees - the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The stories of these two U.S. Government organizations are told through the eyes and experiences of several whistle blowers, two U.S. Senators, one Washington Times reporter, and a key official of the U.S. government's General Accountability Office (GAO).

The trials and tribulations of the whistle blowers are the central theme designed to illustrate the failings of these organizations. A number of well known failures are used in the documentary -- ranging from the PAA 103 disaster of December 21, 1988, to the 1994 hijacking of the Air France Airbus and its subsequent termination by a French Special assault team in Marseille, to the Bojinka plans by Ramzi Yousef and his terrorist team in Manila in late 1994 and early 1995, the devastating 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, down to the present day attempt to bomb NWA/Delta Flight 253 by the underwear bomber on December 25, 2009. Much is made of the alleged NWA flight 327 probe by the Syrian band flying from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29, 2004 which was largely discredited by later reviews and by the TSA Air Marshals on board the flight.

The failures of the several government agencies in most of these incidents already have been thoroughly investigated by a variety of official and unofficial organizations and groups and made public in reports and Congressional hearings, and none of these reports will give any great comfort to any airline passenger or to the general public. Nor will this documentary provide the flying public any comfort, but far from being redundant, Please Remove Your Shoes does provide additional information not available in these public reports. The behind-the-scenes revelations by the whistle blowers give credibility to complaints of sloppy aviation security procedures and alleged willful negligence by FAA and TSA officials.

Of course, if one is to believe the allegations in the documentary, then one has to accept the revelations by the whistle blowers at face value - without any in-depth knowledge about the individual whistle blower, his motivations or intentions. To their credit, all appear sincere in their assertions, and in at least one instance, an individual's claim of warning the FAA of impending attacks is well documented.

The documentary alleges several times that FAA managers made gross errors or failed to act on known failures of the pre-9/11 aviation security screening of passengers and their personal articles. In the film, whistle blowers cite statistics that the pre-9/11 screening system failed to detect guns, knives, explosives (or simulated explosives) as much as 90 percent of the time. One individual stated in the film that some procedures were successful in detecting these test articles only 3 percent of the time. These same individuals revealed that the tests were totally unrealistic because of the conditions imposed on them by their FAA supervisors, conditions affected by the whims and complaints made by the airlines which were responsible for the screening. In other words, even with unrealistic testing protocols the failures to detect the test articles were enormous. One U.S. Senator backhandedly confirmed the enormity of these detection failures of the pre-9/11 aviation security screening system that was being run by U.S. airlines. The whistle blowers allege that their complaints to FAA supervisors and managers did not result in the adoption of their recommended changes to their testing regimen.

Screening failures aren't the only target of the Please Remove Your Shoes documentary; it jumps quickly into whistle blower complaints about the Federal Air Marshal (FAM) program under the TSA. It rehashes the revelations in the 2003-2005 timeframe about the TSA FAM head requiring the air marshals to dress in business suits or sport jackets with ties. The complaint was that this frequently exposed their identity because other passengers were in leisure clothes, e.g. going to Los Vegas, but TSA's official response was that during a real incident, business suit clothes would signal to the passengers that they were indeed marshals.

In the movie, one whistle blower details trials and tribulations that followed allegations from the TSA that he was the individual who released data to the media. He tells viewers that he wasn't the leak, but subsequently became a whistle blower after being relieved of his air marshal duties and assigned the task of washing the unit's vehicles. Most of these allegations have been confirmed by Congressional hearings on the subject and they eventually resulted in the resignation of the former official that was running the TSA Federal Air Marshal program at that time. What is not revealed in the documentary is that this former official was actually a former Secret Service official, and the result is that viewers are left with the carry-over impression from the earlier allegations of failures and alleged willful misconduct that it was an FAA official and that former FAA officials are at fault for the TSA failures.

The inescapable conclusion of Please Remove Your Shoes is that the documentary is simply a collection of misadventures by the FAA and the TSA. Furthermore, I would argue that the documentary deals with symptoms but fails to address the systemic problem. That systemic problem was the result of three or more elements.

The first of these is the U.S. political system where the heads of the FAA, DoT, FBI, the Congressmen/women, and the in-power presidential administration are all elements of the U.S. campaign funding system. In the pre-9/11 aviation security system, the FAA issued the regulations, was supposed to enforce them, had to deal with any failures, and handled crisis management. As directed by the FAA, the U.S. airlines were in charge of screening the passengers, their personal articles, their checked baggage and other articles. The passengers paid for the system through taxes on their tickets as well as contributions from the U.S. general fund. The airlines paid taxes as well that went into the general fund with the exception of taxes that went into an Aviation Trust Fund. The U.S. airlines had the greatest operational involvement in the pre-9/11 aviation security system, and one has to consider that the airlines gave monies to the U.S. political system through their contributions to each major political party and to individual political campaign funds. The post 9/11 aviation security system put the TSA in charge and does the security screening, and enforcement - all quite differently from the pre-9/11 system.

The second element is that the FAA and TSA bureaucracy are essentially "survivors" -- survivors in the sense that many of the key FAA managers, and now TSA managers, were comfortably seated into a key aviation or security position and did not want to jeopardize their position or remuneration by "rocking the boat" by implementing unwelcome security requirements. To do so meant that the airlines Air Transport Association (ATA) would raise objections to the FAA, the DoT, the Administration, AND the individual Congressional Congressmen/women. Since the airlines had all of the monies, they most often encouraged individuals from Congress to object to the administration and the FAA. As a consequence, the airlines frequently "won" and the FAA would reverse its planned regulatory actions. After one or two of these major setbacks the failure of individual FAA bureaucrats to act was predictable; they became survivors. The TSA is in the process of becoming similarly impacted.

In the private sector an organization would go bankrupt under similar circumstances - in government they become mature bureaucracies and continue their existence to the detriment of the public interest.

The third element is that the airlines were the predominant political entity in the pre-9/11 system. They still play a substantial role in the post 9/11 system with the U.S. airports partially replacing their pre-9/11 role. As noted earlier, in their pre-9/11 existence, the airlines frequently ruled supreme notwithstanding the FAA's supposed dominant role. Several FAA Administrators promoted the FAA's role as being "coach and counselor", as opposed to a role of regulation and enforcement. In other words, the FAA under these Administrators wanted to be "liked or loved" by the airlines. Most failed miserably as the airlines were operated on a profit-or-loss basis and reacted according to rules of profit. If a compliance issue detracted from their bottom line, they opposed it. The post-9/11 U.S. airline industry is no different - one either makes a profit or they go out of business. The U.S. airports now have a more dominant role and they are similarly motivated as they are most often part of a nearby community economic system that cannot afford any long-term losses.

Please Remove Your Shoes misses these basic facts. After a D.C.-area premier at the E Street Cinema, one individual asked executive producer Gevault why he had made a statement in a Q&A session to the effect that the pre-9/11 organizational template was simply transferred to the post 9/11 era. The questioner pointed out the diametric differences in the two templates before asking his question. Gevault's confused response indicated that his actual knowledge of the underpinnings of the two systems was very weak. To this reviewer, it seemed that he was relying on knowledge passed along from whistle blowers, people who each saw only one or two parts of the FAA/TSA elephant. After that response, it becomes understandable why the documentary is somewhat of a disjointed series of events recounted by whistle blowers, rather than an in-depth analysis of the underlying problems within the U.S. aviation security system.

The foregoing criticism notwithstanding, Please Remove Your Shoes does effectively add to the body of public knowledge about the need for improvements in the U.S. aviation security system. At best, if a security system approaches a 90 percent success level, then each remaining 1 percent improvement will cost exponentially more than the earlier percentages - and one can never actually reach a 100% effectiveness level regardless of the monies and effort expended. Lastly, contrary to statements in the documentary, the current TSA aviation security system is substantially more effective than its pre-9/11 predecessor. Nevertheless, the current TSA aviation security system is not what it should be nor what it could be and efforts must continue to improve its effectiveness.

Billie H. VincentAbout the author: Billie H. Vincent is a retired FAA Aviation Regulatory, Safety, Security, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) expert now serving as the president and CEO of aviation consulting firm ASI. He is a former Director of Civil Aviation Security for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with over 55 years of aviation experience, including senior positions as Chief of the New York En-route (ATC) Center and head of FAA training. As president of ASI, Mr. Vincent has directed and participated in over 90 aviation projects worldwide. Mr. Vincent participated in numerous international aviation conferences and is active in the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) and other aviation organizations.

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