Security in the Skies
With promises of ever tighter security, Reagan National Airport
in Washington DC reopened last week as the air transportation
industry struggles to return too normal. But things will never
be what they once were. In fact, what the traveling public
considered normal before September 11, 2001 needs to be redefined.
Whether our war on terrorism lasts one week or five years,
we must never let our guard down again. Terrorists have proven
they can strike on American soil. Unfortunately, our history
has shown that when we get complacent and comfortable in our
own skin, bad things happen. Does Pearl Harbor ring a bell?
For years, the airline industry kept the federal government
at bay when the subject of tighter security reared its ugly
head. As usual, the airlines complained about costs. And when
the FAA did prevail on a security issue, the airlines usually
found the most inexpensive means to handle the problem, hence
$6 per hour baggage screeners. A couple of weeks back I wrote
an article urging my fellow journalists to stay on top of
I want to take the time now to urge your continued vigilance
in reporting on lax security measures. The airlines have $15
billion of our money, we should see more than just token responses
to tighter security. We're already starting to see a relaxation
of certain security procedures. Its been widely reported that
passengers at many airports are waiting in lines as long as
two hours just to pass through security checkpoints. Unfortunately,
were also seeing numerous stories where passengers are getting
to the gate in 15 minutes with minimal to no security checks.
I realize that many security procedures are invisible to the
passenger, but the further we get away from those terrorist
attacks the more the airlines will try to duck their responsibility
for passenger safety.
Call me cynical, but the airlines have a history of avoidance
when it comes to spending money on safety. Curbside check-in
has already returned for some carriers and it won't be long
before others follow suit. Allegedly, those carriers who allow
curbside check-in have passed the more stringent security
requirements imposed by the FAA. We should want to know what
those requirements are. Have the skycaps been trained properly?
Who's ultimately responsible?
Bags checked-in at the counter aren't necessarily being screened
before being placed on the aircraft. The only time they are
being screened is when the passenger fits a certain profile
in the computer reservations system, and some of those aren't
even being checked. Just last week the FAA had to issue orders
for a more thorough examination of laptop computers and other
carry-on luggage. Here's one to keep an eye on. United and
American Airlines announced last week they would be putting
steel bars on the cockpit doors of all their planes to prevent
a would-be hijacker from entering the cockpit and commandeering
Continental and Alaska were to begin installation of crossbar
locking devices on their cockpit doors, but decided to wait
for more direction from the government before they proceed.
These bolts and bars are temporary measures, until a more
permanent solution can be found. Three ideas that will be
getting a great deal of scrutiny in the coming months will
be on-board surveillance systems. These systems will capture
images of passengers as they board the aircraft. Those images
will then be downloaded to a central computer for possible
match with FBI crime photos.
A further extension of this video imagery would be to have
on-board surveillance cameras active in flight, relaying images
to a monitor on the ground. Another idea that's gained a little
momentum over the past week is the use of remote control navigation.
This would allow someone on the ground to control the plane
if the pilot indicates the aircraft is in distress. Both ideas
have some merit and both are fraught with peril.
For example, if the plane can be controlled from the ground
why would a terrorist ever have to board the aircraft? And
lastly, federal control of airline and airport security is
a must. Six dollar an hour employees with no law enforcement
training and a high degree of turnover due in part to poor
pay should not be tolerated. The airlines will holler costs
and on this one they might just be right, which is all the
more reason why the federal government should seize control
of security. They should pick the outside agencies used to
screen our bags, pay them and more importantly train them
in the ways of law enforcement much as they do the sky marshals.
I also believe a percentage of the cost should be passed on
to the airlines. If the airlines run their companies properly,
those costs shouldn't be passed on to the traveling public
since they are already spending some monies on security. The
new Secretary of Homeland Security should demand all agencies
within the federal government and law enforcement work together
to protect our citizens. How many times have we heard about
the FBI, CIA, INS and the local police agencies not sharing
Regardless of the solution, you as journalists should demand
results, if for no other reason than your own security as
you travel to cover stories. Confidence in the nation's airways
will only come through your eyes and ears. If security isn't
what it should be, I encourage you all to report your findings.
Stay on top of this story until the airlines and the government
clean up their act. Let's not fall into a comfort zone and
forget the lessons of September 11, 2001.