Airlines Contribute to Fear of Flying

JEFFREY M. LANDAW

March 13, 1991|By JEFFREY M. LANDAW

The Clipper flying boats, the first jet airliners -- and finally the nose of Flight 103 lying in a Scottish meadow. If Pan American World Airways finally disappears, that last image is the one we'll remember, and not without reason.

One reason the airlines are hurting, as everyone seems to admit, is fear of terrorism. But the airlines, and their passengers, would have less to fear if they didn't handle safety the way General Motors handled Ralph Nader's charges against the Corvair: Denial, then a lot of words with very little action, then finally, perhaps, panic.

A trip my wife and I took a few years ago could almost have been designed to demonstrate the wrong way and the right way to keep passengers safe.

We flew TWA to Amsterdam from New York's Kennedy Airport, where my in-laws were able to follow us into a restricted area without even being stopped; where the security personnel stressed the size of our bags more than their contents; and where we finally had to ask when they were checking our bags.

At Amsterdam, where we changed for a flight to Tel Aviv, KLM took security seriously. We were patted down, our cameras were examined, and we had good reason to believe that the Israelis had checked everything out. (Our recommendation for the ideal airline: El Al security and KLM food.)

We got another lesson coming back to Europe. Ahead of us at the Tel Aviv airport ticket counter was a man with a Uruguayan passport and the uniform of the professional student: leather jacket, jeans, boots, stubbly beard. We watched as the security guard searched every corner of his luggage and grilled him about where he was going, where he'd been and what he'd been doing before he let him pass. After a while in a society under siege, scenes like that become a lot more defensible than they seem to be here.

KLM was evidently willing to learn security from the masters; most airlines aren't. But then again, when most airlines finally pay attention to security, they get reports like the one on a local newscast one February evening, in which passengers complained about the inconvenience of the safeguards. (What was that, Mr. Kipling, about ''making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep?'')

If a team of writers for Conde Nast Traveler magazine is right, we're easy pickings wherever we go. In the February issue, they describe how they passed through gate after gate with lead-lined bags and mock explosives while guards talked or idled -- one danced -- instead of searching them; passed into forbidden areas, even coming close to airplanes parked with their hatches open, without being stopped; and checked baggage onto planes without boarding them. Airlines are supposed to take bags off when their owner doesn't board, but in three of nine cases they didn't.

Gary Stoller, the team's leader, blamed lax U.S. security on ''a dangerous complacency -- the belief that airport terrorism is something that happens 'over there.' ''

The Conde Nast investigators ran their tests last fall, when the gulf crisis was well under way and airlines and airport authorities should have been more security-conscious than usual. But Pan Am's most conspicuous reaction to the crisis was a parody: It refused to sell tickets to any Iraqi nationals, getting itself properly sued in New York. No wonder it stands with TWA at the bottom of the confidence list and, probably not by coincidence, at the bottom of the financial standings as well.

The case of Flight 103 seems to have been made even more complicated than it should have been by foreign politics, up to and including our enlisting Syria, the apparent protector of the bombers, as an ally against Iraq. But Pan Am apparently played the cards that were dealt it about as badly as possible, and now it's paying a very conspicuous price.

Perhaps it's tempting fate to mention it -- or it's too difficult to advertise an ''unsought good,'' which is how economists classify a quality like the absence of terrorists -- but you'd think a good name on security would be a competitive advantage for an airline. While foreign airlines build identities on their national stereotypes -- Lufthansa and Swissair are punctual and efficient, KLM has that food -- airlines in America don't seem able to compete on anything but fares.

Few of them have easily remembered characteristics, and some of those that do probably wish they hadn't. Remember Eastern and its labor relations? And then there was Republic, immortalized, in a way, in a song by Tom Paxton (''May a team of mad flamenco dancers do to your face/What you did to the neck of my guitar!'').

There haven't been any acts of terror against airlines since the gulf crisis began. We can hope the terrorists are gasping for breath and wondering what to do next. But we can't believe that there won't be more such acts, and when they come, the airlines that fail to foresee and guard against them will suffer for failing to learn lessons that were written down long ago.

Those lessons include teaching the public that since anyone can get a ticket, anyone can be searched. No one is barred now from airport terminals or ticket lines. Ticket and bag inspection is lax, but gate security, by all reports, has improved.

It's still too easy, it appears, to pass security with a ticket for one gate and slip through an empty one next to it. People are allowed to wait too long on the plea that they're meeting an arriving flight. Limits on how early people can arrive, and how late they can stay, might help.

But the best rules won't help if people ignore them. If airlines and passengers think they can lighten up on security, they should think again about the fate of Flight 103, and the airline that ran it.

Jeffrey Landaw is a makeup editor at The Sun.

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