• U.S.


11 minute read
Elizabeth Gleick

What are you willing to give up to make air travel safer? An additional $50 a ticket? $200? An extra half-hour spent undergoing security checks at the airport, or twice that? More important still, how many of us–complacent in the knowledge of American technological superiority, shielded here from foreign terrorism for decades–even realize how perilous the state of airport and airplane security is? For years safety measures, many of which are now standard elsewhere in the world, have languished here–victims of cost-benefit analysis, competing business interests and glacial government bureaucracy.

The modern era of air terrorism–and antiterrorist technology–began on Dec. 21, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 was blasted out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, brought down by 14 oz. of plastic explosives packed into a radio-cassette recorder in a piece of luggage. At least the modern era was supposed to have begun then. Subsequent investigations revealed deep fissures in U.S. airline-security systems. The crash also elicited heartfelt promises, in the form of the 1990 Aviation Security Improvement Act, to ensure that the tragedy would not be repeated.

The reality, though, is that as terrorists have progressed, creating schemes of ever greater sophistication, deviousness and danger, U.S. airports have remained mired in the past, with preventive measures–such as metal detectors–that were developed in the 1970s. Those worked well for the problem of that era–hijacking–but do little to combat the threats posed by plastique or suicide bombers. “Our security system is not a model that one would hold up with any pride,” says Billie Vincent, who was head of FAA security from 1982 to 1986 and now runs a consulting firm.

Among other measures, the 1990 legislation required the FAA to speed up explosives-detection research, to heighten security checks on airport personnel and to release passenger manifests within three hours of a crash. The deadline set by Congress: November 1993. The FAA failed to adhere to that timetable, blaming Congress for setting overly stringent standards and requiring complicated tests of the new technologies. But that same year–five full years after Lockerbie–the inspector general’s office of the Department of Transportation released a report blasting the FAA’s overall security program. It is the only such report that has been made public, and it makes for sobering reading.

The report states baldly that airport security was still “seriously flawed” and “not adequate” at the nation’s riskiest airports, which include New York City’s John F. Kennedy. While the FAA had rated the four airports visited by its inspectors as “good to very good,” undercover agents from the inspector general’s office reached dramatically different conclusions. In 15 out of 20 attempts to gain entry to supposedly secure areas, agents had little trouble: they got into aircraft-parking areas, baggage areas, and one agent managed to slip an unarmed hand grenade through a metal detector.

Little has changed since then. Although the FAA claimed in the wake of last week’s crash that it has in fact implemented all 38 provisions of the 1990 act, the inspector general’s office, under Mary Schiavo, who resigned this month, has just finished an updated and still classified study that uncovered many of the same security problems found last time around. This new report shows that undercover agents successfully breached security in 40% of their attempts. That’s down from 75% and clearly an improvement, but not one that creates much assurance. “It’s just as bad now as it was in 1993,” says the Department of Transportation official, who has read the new report. “Very scary.”

The General Accounting Office too had made its security concerns public well before last week’s crash. A grim report released in March noted that air terrorism remains a grave concern, and that “terrorists were aware both of airport vulnerabilities and how existing security measures could be defeated.” After being briefed last week on these concerns, including those raised by the inspector general’s new report, Republican Senator Larry Pressler, chairman of the Senate transportation panel, was dismayed, and acknowledged that he was himself “nervous” about flying. “There’s got to be an understanding that we need better airport security, that we’re going to have to pay for it, and that it’s not going to be any fun,” he says.

Travelers at international airports have long had that understanding. In London, travelers are patted down, and the government has recently ordered that all checked incoming international baggage be X-rayed, even if the passengers are catching a connecting domestic flight. In most Arab countries, passengers run a gauntlet of 14 checkpoints before boarding. Ironically, at Hellenikon airport in Athens–notorious for uneven security and a target of U.S. investigators–passengers, including those who boarded the doomed TWA 747 bound for J.F.K. last week, are screened several times before they board: by Greek airport officials and by airline officials at the gate.

In the U.S., the FAA requires that all carry-on baggage for international flights be inspected, that all checked luggage be matched with a passenger, and that checked luggage be X-rayed. But a former top security official with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees Kennedy airport, says that to save time, baggage checked at curbside is often taken directly to the cargo area without going through an X-ray machine. U.S. domestic flights still do not require bags and passengers to travel together–even after the CIA issued a warning last summer that there were signs of increased terrorist threats to U.S. airlines. And when the FAA proposed positive bag matches for domestic flights–which the agency says would cost some $2 billion to implement–the Air Transport Association of America, a Washington-based trade group that represents the major airlines, balked at the measure.

TWA CEO Jeffrey Erickson told TIME last week that he does not see a need for dramatic change: “I think our standards are the best in the world. There’s been no indication that there’s a security problem.” TWA has its own wholly owned security service that handles all its international locations, including Athens.

Experts caution too that what security measures do exist here drape passengers in an illusion of safety. The reality is that U.S. airports have no systematic way of screening for explosives that a terrorist might want to sneak aboard an aircraft. Metal detectors might miss plastics or liquids used to assemble a bomb, as might bored, poorly paid and poorly trained operators of X-ray machines. At some U.S. airports, including Kennedy, checked-in luggage for international flights is sniffed by specially trained dogs or scanned by electronic vapor-particle detectors that can locate explosives. But if the explosives are in airtight containers, they may be missed.

Airline companies are intently focused on efficiency, which means minimizing the amount of time a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment is on the ground. But this short turnaround time might increase vulnerability. An arriving jet is swarmed by 50 or so mechanics, janitors, refuelers, caterers and ramp workers, not all of them airline employees. It’s a period of nearly unlimited access by people who may not even know one another. FBI investigators are no doubt interviewing anyone who so much as came near Flight 800 as it was serviced at the gate at J.F.K.

American airline employees are also unaccustomed to recognizing suspicious behavior. For example, in 1991 Isaac Yeffet, former director of worldwide security for El Al and a 30-year veteran of the Israeli secret service, sent a TV producer with a hidden camera to buy tickets, using cash, at New York airports under the names of several well-known terrorists, including Abu Nidal. The producer did so, with ease. Yeffet says he pleaded in vain during congressional testimony after the Lockerbie tragedy for a more effective airport-security plan. “Unfortunately,” he says, “it is easier to talk to a wall than to the FAA.”

While no amount of fancy gadgetry will make our world completely safe from a fanatically determined terrorist, it could help. Such technology just happens to be very expensive, and the FAA has been reluctant to ask the airlines, many of which are strapped by debt, to make enormous investments in equipment that may soon be outdated, or that is not fail-safe.

Consider the most promising new development, and the only new scanning device certified by the FAA: the InVision CTX 5000, which combines computed tomography (CT scanning) and high-quality X-ray imaging to produce cross-sectional images of a bag’s contents. The CTX 5000 is the only device available that is equipped to detect all varieties of bombs: military explosives that might be concealed behind a circuit board, like the bomb that brought Pan Am Flight 103 down; plastic-sheet explosives contained in suitcase linings; and commercial explosives that might be composed of dynamite and powders. The FAA has contributed $8 million to help develop the CTX 5000, but installing it at the 75 busiest airports in the country would cost between $400 million and $2.2 billion, according to the General Accounting Office’s March report. So far there are only three of the $1 million devices in use at U.S. airports–one in San Francisco and two in Atlanta–while El Al plans to install one this fall at J.F.K. Some 21 others, however, are in place around the world, including airports in London, Brussels, Manchester and Israel. Says Bob Monetti, an engineer who lost his son Rick in the Lockerbie explosion and has for seven years been a member of the FAA’s Aviation Security Advisory Board: “The city of Manchester, England, has purchased more state-of-the-art explosive-device detectors than the entire U.S.”

England is also well ahead in developing stronger fuselages that can withstand blast damage. (The FAA is largely focusing its efforts on strengthening the containers that carry luggage, and not the entire plane.) But such improvements have their costs: they could boost an airplane’s weight, and reduce by 10 or 20 the number of seats available. That could raise the price of a ticket some $50.”They know these containers work, and they know they’d make detection cheaper, faster and more accurate,” says Monetti. “But the airlines say they’re too expensive.”

Debates over cost infuriate some critics of the FAA. These days, about 75% of the agency’s $8 billion annual budget is paid out of the Aviation Trust Fund–money collected from a 10% tax, which recently expired, levied on air fares. As the FAA’s share of those revenues has risen–freeing billions for other federal programs–the portion of the trust fund earmarked for airport and safety improvements has fallen from $1.9 billion in 1992 to $1.4 billion this year, a cut of more than 25%. “The money is collected for aviation, and it should be spent for aviation, not to make the deficit look smaller,” says Tim Neale, spokesman for the Air Transport Association. Representative William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, was stunned earlier this year when FAA Administrator David Hinson and Transportation Secretary Federico Pena told him the trust fund was going broke. Jefferson was looking for money to expand the New Orleans airport. “The bottom line is that there isn’t a fund for forward-looking capital projects to provide safety and security equipment for our airports,” Jefferson told Time. Soon there may be no fund at all. Congressional squabbling has kept the ticket tax from being reimposed. Unless Congress acts, the fund, with $2.5 billion on hand last week, is expected to run dry by year’s end.

Americans, painfully emerging from a state of denial about the threat of terrorism, have been reluctant to acknowledge that we may be forced to make some trade-offs, forgoing quick, carefree airport experiences in return for improved odds in the sky. The Israelis require coach flyers to arrive at the airport three hours before takeoff, while business-class ticket holders must arrive two hours early. “Will the American public be willing to sit there for hours and hours just waiting?” wonders Louis J. Rodrigues, who led the gao inquiry. “We have to agree, as a country, that the threat is significant enough to warrant that kind of inconvenience.”

And the Federal Government, the airlines and the passengers may all have to agree that the extra costs just have to be borne. “The fundamental problem is, we have reduced aviation security to a commercial question,” says Morris D. Busby, formerly the State Department’s top official on counterterrorism. “For the airline CEO, security becomes something that must be done as cheaply and effectively as possible.”

The threat of terrorism can never be entirely erased. Tightening airport security is like squeezing one end of a balloon: if airlines become too difficult a target, terrorists will point their weapons at a bulge elsewhere. “There is always,” says international terrorism expert Victor LeVine, a professor at Washington University, “some window of opportunity.” Whether an act of terrorism brought down TWA Flight 800 or not, some of those windows could be closed before tragedy can strike again.

–Reported by William Dowell/New York, James L. Graff/Chicago and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington

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