Taking Fear Out of Flying

Passage of an airline security bill by Congress, more than two months after Sept. 11, will hopefully - and eventually - put an end to all those anecdotal criticisms among flyers about lax screening of carry-on bags.

It might even snag some terrorists, although any clever terrorist would not likely try to repeat Sept. 11 anytime soon.

The task will be huge in building a workforce of 28,000 federal screeners. All of them must get FBI criminal background checks.

Rebuilding the confidence of the flying public is an urgent task. The new law sets higher and more uniform standards in protecting planes. Pilots can carry guns, and all bags will eventually be checked for bombs. (Fewer than 10 percent are checked now.) Screeners must be US citizens and well paid. A single agency with the Department of Transportation (DOT) will oversee security - not just for airlines, but also for trains, buses, and ships.

While the compromise bill does put federal workers in charge of airport security, many of the constraints of the civil service will not apply, thus bringing needed flexibility.

Also, airports can seek permission from the government after three years to use private screeners or local law enforcement officers to do the work.

The Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations (CAPA), a trade association representing some 27,000 pilots, has been tracking how well the DOT's task force on improving air-travel security is doing. It's a good thing they're watchdogging the process. Pilots are in a good position to understand the full range of security issues, and they're smart to keep the pressure on.

CAPA's first report card, issued last week, showed that 4 out of 7 safety and security items recommended by DOT, which carried a Nov. 5 deadline, still are incomplete. The pilots did note, however, that installing cockpit door barriers is nearly 100 percent complete on passenger jets. (More fortification will come later.) But when it came to training pilots to handle hijackings, guidelines for searching aircraft cabins, or how the flight crew communicates with pilots once the doors are bolted, the department's own deadline was not met.

Further, security for cargo flights needs as much attention as passenger jets. Safety and security standards for cargo jets long have been different. That problem needs fixing.

Among CAPA's thoughtful recommendations in this area: creating a FAA-regulated system for screening packages electronically, the same for a "package profiling system" to track suspect shippers, and studying the design and development of bomb-resistant cargo containers.

It will take continued diligence to close the loopholes in aviation security, but last week, Congress took a big first step in the right direction.

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