Security starts with the ticket

Airlines: Begin screening passengers the moment they make a flight reservation.

September 30, 2001|By Peter J. Ognibene | Peter J. Ognibene,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A FEW DAYS after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced the appointment of two "rapid response" teams to come up with security plans for airliners and airports. Their report is due tomorrow.

On Thursday, President Bush provided a preview of what that report is likely to recommend: armed air marshals on domestic flights, stronger cockpit doors and some measure of federal supervision of airport security operations. The president also asked that governors deploy National Guard units until his recommendations can be put in place.

Though welcome, the president's plans do not go far enough. Their chief failing lies in their reliance on physical security - stopping potential terrorists once they're inside the airport. That should be the last line of defense, not the first.

Until now, air travel security has never been a national priority. It has been relegated to specialists. That attitude was writ large in the teams Mineta appointed.

Every member is an aviation insider - airline and manufacturing executives, government officials and the presidents of associations representing pilots and airports. The teams are "balanced" - as political Washington construes balance - in that the key aviation power centers are represented.

Mineta has chosen capable people, but they and their colleagues are the very ones who shaped and operated the security system that failed so horribly on Sept. 11. Consider: The airlines have dragged their feet on purchasing the latest generation of bomb-detecting equipment for U.S. airports.

Instead of a professional law enforcement service screening passengers, we have poorly trained, poorly paid "inspectors" who work for the low-bidding private contractors favored by the airlines. Turnover is high. According to the General Accounting Office, nine of 10 inspectors have less than half a year on the job.

Two additional factors have exacerbated the security shortcomings of air travel: fierce cost competition among air carriers and pinchpenny politics in Washington.

To reduce costs, the airlines have curtailed service, cut their work force and squeezed travel agents nickel by nickel to lower commissions. They have pushed the Internet and e-ticketing, thus eliminating the human element once associated with booking reservations and writing tickets.

While embracing automated technology to drive down costs, the airlines have ignored the power of computers and databases to analyze each person who books a flight. Credit-card companies, which hold vast stores of customer information, treat airline tickets as ordinary commercial transactions: all that matters is the cardholder's history as a bill-payer.

Federal agencies, which meticulously computer-match airline passengers arriving from abroad against watch lists, do not screen passengers before they board domestic flights. We rely, instead, on minimum-wage "inspectors" squinting at murky X-ray images in the hope they will find that one bag in a million that could endanger us. At check-in, the airline agent glances at your picture ID, asks two perfunctory questions about your baggage and gets equally perfunctory answers.

The two-pronged Republican assault against the federal government, which began in 1980, contributed to the problem. The GOP rode into power, first in the White House, then in Congress, by promising to cut taxes and slash the federal government. In his first year as president, Ronald Reagan made his bones by crushing the air traffic controllers' union.

With Congress tightening the reins on domestic spending, commercial aviation assumed the posture of a mendicant, scrambling with every other private interest for a sliver of the public pie. In response to individual incidents, the FAA and industry would whir into motion, but when it came time to face the inevitable questions - how much and who pays - everything came to a halt. The industry looked to government, but neither the White House nor Congress was prepared to fund anything more than incremental changes.

Today, the security of air travel is a matter of national defense. Many of the politicians who once caviled about government agencies and federal bureaucrats are now eager to unlock the U.S. Treasury to protect airports and commercial airliners.

Though cost-cutting and anti-government politics will not be barriers this time, there is one final obstacle: vision. If Mineta's rapid response teams chart a narrow course and wind up giving us more of the same, only better, we will remain as vulnerable tomorrow as we are today.

What we most need, and have never had, is a systematic way to identify and isolate those individuals most likely to threaten our safety. We must develop a concerted way to use the resources of airlines, financial firms, communications carriers and government agencies to screen potential passengers as soon as they purchase a ticket.

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