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Securing the Skies

October 2, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: The face of American flying is changing almost daily. This weekend, National Guard troops carrying automatic weapons took guard posts at major airports. They joined federal and local police already standing watch. Passengers are greeted with long lines, as ticket agents scrutinize passenger profiles. Screening procedures take longer and are more intrusive.

But so far, there is little consistency in the security measures among airports. At Los Angeles, passengers can no longer be dropped at the curb, but have to ride a shuttle bus instead.

That’s not the case in other places like Denver. Curbside baggage check-in was banned everywhere, but is now slowly coming back airline-by-airline, airport-by-airport. Security consultant Brian Jenkins says what is needed is a basic rethinking of airline security nationwide.

BRIAN JENKINS, Member, Gore Commission: The problem now is not going to be solved by a few new rules. The problem, in the long term, is not going to be solved by having National Guardsmen stand sentry duty at airports.

Aviation security has become a vital part of national security. National security demands a fundamental review of the strategies, the structure, the financing, the procedures and the performance of aviation security.

TOM BEARDEN: The aviation security system had its beginnings in the 1960s, when hijackers first starting diverting planes, and evolved piece by piece, usually in response to new threats.

Metal detectors arrived in 1973 to keep weapons off planes. Armed sky marshals in plain clothes were put on some routes, but their numbers were allowed to atrophy.

When Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the focus shifted from guns to bombs. In 1990, a presidential commission recommended that research on bomb detection equipment be accelerated. The Lockerbie tragedy also led to bag matching on international flights– the bag didn’t go on the plane unless the person who checked it was also aboard.

The explosion of TWA Flight 800, in 1996, led to another commission headed by Vice President Gore. Even though it eventually turned out that flight 800 was not brought down by a bomb, the Gore Commission report led to full- scale deployment of bomb detection equipment like these CTX X-ray scanners at the San Francisco Airport. They work much like medical cat- scanners, taking “slices” of checked bags, looking for telltale shapes and densities that might be bombs.

But not every airport has such technology yet. The Gore Commission also recommended bag matching on all flights, criminal background checks on airport employees, tighter access to secured areas of the airport, and certification of the security screeners, which would have held them to specific standards.

Gerry Kauvar was the Gore commission’s chief of staff. He says the FAA didn’t move quickly enough on one key area.

TOM BEARDEN: You wanted certification of screening personnel.

GERRY KAUVAR, Chief of Staff, Gore Commission: Absolutely.

TOM BEARDEN: And how long has it been since you made that recommendation to today?

GERRY KAUVAR: February of ’97.

TOM BEARDEN: A long time.

GERRY KAUVAR: Very long time. Much too long.

TOM BEARDEN: What does that say about the FAA?

GERRY KAUVAR: I think what it says is that the FAA Did not feel a sufficient sense of urgency.

TOM BEARDEN: Some senators also decried that perceived lack of urgency. They pointed to repeated reports by the General Accounting Office and the Transportation Department’s inspector general, criticizing the slow pace of security reforms.

SEN. RON WYDEN, (D) Oregon: Today I’m not interested in the blame game; there is plenty to go around. What I’m interested, though, is knowing whether the government is now going to be persistent and relentless in making the changes for the long term.

TOM BEARDEN: Not only did the current system evolve in a piecemeal fashion; it also delegates responsibilities to different parties who have different motivations. The FAA issues the rules and oversees the process; airport operators are responsible for the security of airport property. The airlines are responsible for screening bags and passengers.

Traditionally, they’ve hired private security companies, who then hire the people who operate the equipment. The contracts usually go to the lowest bidder. It’s those people who are often criticized as the weakest link in the system. Pay is low, and turnover high– 500% at one airport– and their training is often minimal. Federal inspectors have repeatedly been able to easily get weapons and potential bombs past them. Brian Jenkins was a member of the Gore Commission.

BRIAN JENKINS: In the interest of cheap convenient air travel, Congress has failed to require, the airlines industry has failed to provide, the government has failed to enforce, and the public has failed to demand adequate security.

TOM BEARDEN: Billie Vincent is a former chief of security at the FAA who now runs a private security consulting firm. He says it’s time to put somebody else in charge.

BILLIE VINCENT: And it needs to be taken away from the FAA, totally away from the FAA, Including the federal air marshals. The reason for that is the airlines historically have so much influence and control over the FAA that you have to put this as far away from a distance standpoint as you possibly can when you federalize it.

TOM BEARDEN: Neither the FAA, nor the Department of Transportation, would consent to an interview for this story. But another former head of security at the FAA, Cathal Flynn, did talk to us. He says the agency can’t just give orders and can’t distance itself from the industry.

CATHAL FLYNN: There are 20,000 screeners. There’s 600,000 people who have access to the ramps of the airports that we regulate for security in the United States. You cannot, even if you wish, get the job done merely through coercion. There has to be a joint understanding of the importance of the job. And it’s the FAA’s job to lead, but everybody must be cooperating.

TOM BEARDEN: Flynn was responsible for many of the changes in security that took place after the Gore Commission recommendations. He says he wasn’t able to do everything, but he’s proud of what he did accomplish within the FAA’s rule-bound bureaucracy.

In a visit to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last week, President Bush called for much stronger federal supervision of the security process. But he didn’t say precisely what that meant. There’s a broad consensus for change there is little agreement on exactly what kind of change. The Air Transport Association’s John Meenan wants the government to take over the whole system with federal employees actually doing the work.

JOHN MEENAN, Air Transport Association: We believe it has to be under the control of the federal government. How that comes to be set up by the government is really a decision that won’t be made by the airlines.

TOM BEARDEN: Former FAA Security Chief Flynn says the real failure of September 11 was a failure of imagination.

CATHAL FLYNN: The failure was on my part to put together certain straws in the wind: That people are suicidal, that people can learn how to fly planes, and that people who next took over planes might not be taking it over to divert it, but might want to use it as a missile.

TOM BEARDEN: But no one predicted that.

CATHAL FLYNN: No one predicted that. But I’ll regret it. I do regret it.

TOM BEARDEN: Today, people are trying to anticipate the next attack, and are exploring new methods for avoiding future catastrophes.

The president called for more research on new technologies, such as a system that would let a plane be landed by remote control. And the pilots who used to oppose secure cockpit doors and carrying weapons now are in favor of both. But redesigning and installing stronger doors will take time and money. And not everyone thinks guns in the cockpit is a good idea. Dozens of other ideas are on the table, and are being debated in countless congressional hearings.

Congress is likely to pass new legislation and spend a lot of money very quickly. But no one thinks that will solve the aviation security challenge once and for all.