Political baggage

August 12, 2002

SUMMER VACATIONS have given some Americans their first chance to fly since Sept. 11. The pleasure has doubtless been mixed.

Stepped-up security measures are being introduced with widely varying speed and efficiency. The airport, the airline, the time and the day of the week -- all make a difference.

Often, you can arrive the recommended two hours before your flight, breeze through the checkpoints and spend 90 minutes waiting at the gate to board. Other times you're stuck in a line that winds halfway around the airport, with barely enough time to make your flight after a bully of a passenger screener has violated your privacy and dignity in a random search for concealed weapons.

But, hey, it could be worse. Airport security has become hostage to the election-year gamesmanship in Congress. If politics aren't put aside soon, it's the passengers who'll lose.

The nation's largest airports are predicting pure chaos if they are forced to meet a Dec. 31 federal deadline for screening all checked bags with bomb detectors. They just don't have enough time, they say, to put in place enough of the SUV-sized screening machines to handle the job. They raise the specter of makeshift temporary measures that would send lines out into the parking lots.

When House Republicans sought to delay the deadline by one year, Democrats accused them of putting passenger safety at risk in order to do the bidding of their friends and contributors in the airport lobby. "Shame on you," Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, told backers of the delay. "When a plane goes down, I will expect you to talk to the grieving families."

House Republicans won on the legislation, but Democrats think they've scored a theme for 30-second campaign ads.

It's up to the Senate to take a more responsible approach. Three-quarters of the nation's airports, including BWI, are expected to make the deadline if they keep working hard at it. The pressure should not be taken off them to do so.

Some allowances will have to be made, however, for the mega-airports, such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago O'Hare, which have to accommodate much more traffic. A year's delay is too long, but perhaps six months would be warranted.

The Bush administration can contribute to a sensible outcome by acknowledging the deadline can't be met everywhere -- partly due to its own failures -- rather than hoping Congress will act first. The airports haven't been well-served by President Bush's new Transportation Security Administration, which was launched by a former Secret Service official who knew nothing about transportation.

The TSA is also woefully behind in hiring the 30,000 or so checkpoint screeners it needs to meet the Nov. 19 deadline for replacing all the private contractors.

Big hopes rest on the agency's new director, James M. Loy.

Meanwhile, demagogues should put a sock in it.

Americans face risk every day, perhaps none greater than driving on the highway. To fan their fear of flying is unconscionable -- and ultimately self-defeating.

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