Confidence rises in air security

Although breaches are still a problem, both flight crews and the public say tighter security is making a difference.

NEW YORK

Alin Boswell now goes to work every day with a game plan to cope with trouble - just in case.

He's a flight attendant, a 13-year veteran of the skies, who, with his colleagues, infuriated many in the aviation industry by raising alarms about continuing security lapses - some of them glaring - long after Sept. 11.

But today, he's feeling "pretty good" about his job again. "With the new security measures, the National Guard being much more involved, and getting rid of some of these private security companies, I feel much better about flying," he says.

For the almost 40 million Americans flying home for the holidays, Mr. Boswell's comments could come as a crucial vote of confidence. The flight attendants consider themselves the first line of defense once the planes take off, as well as the most vulnerable people on board. Boswell's returning confidence, which is echoed by the Association of Flight Attendants, reflects the extent to which a security overhaul has already taken place on the ground and in the skies. The sense of improved security comes even before more substantive changes - such as mandatory screening of all checked bags - are implemented, as required by the aviation security bill, which passed last month.

"I think the system is perfectly safe right now, certainly safer than it was on Sept. 11," says Dale Oderman, an aviation expert at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Can it be improved? Yes. Will there be glitches in the system out into the future, even after all of these measures are in place? Yes. You can never make anything 100 percent safe, but you can make it safer, and that's what they're doing."

Some of the changes are evident. Armed national guardsmen now prowl the airports. Thousands more passenger bags are routinely hand-searched at check-in and at the gate. Cockpit doors have been reinforced, and pilots have been given new training to deal with suicide hijackers.

And the security screeners appear far more alert. That's in part because they're now being watched closely by the Federal Aviation Administration. As a result, security breaches - whether a person rushes the checkpoint, or a screener's attention wanders - bring swift FAA action.

"We have a lot of eyes out there, watching 24 hours a day, and we've hired more for the holidays," says Rebecca Trexler, a spokeswoman for the FAA. "We used to do a lot of testing in the past, and now we're doing more watching to make sure that things are being done well, all the time. And when they're not, we take these very drastic actions."

Evacuations, cancellations

Since Oct. 30, FAA Civil Aviation Security agents have evacuated 26 airport terminals, causing more than 1,111 flight delays and 408 flight cancellations. More than 350 flights were also forced to deplane for rescreening.

That happened to Jason Gottwald's flight from Newark, N.J., to Chicago on Tuesday. He was in line for a random hand-luggage search, and the security guards found what Mr. Gottwald described as a "plastic-coated box cutter" in another passenger's bag. It was confiscated, and the plane continued to board. But about 15 minutes later, federal agents boarded and announced there had been a security breach and everyone had to get off. This time, all passengers had to go through the metal detectors again, and everyone had their bags hand-searched. This time they found a second small knife.

The two men were detained and interrogated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, then released. The flight was canceled.

The extent of the response may have given some passengers a sense of heightened security, but not Gottwald. "There were two breaches of security," he says. "I want to know why they didn't find those knives with the metal detectors."

But surveys show most Americans are willing to fly, even with the risk that some small item may make it through all the new layers of security. A Gallup poll done at the end of last month found that 56 percent of Americans were not afraid of flying. Another 26 percent said they were somewhat afraid.

While Boswell and the other flight attendants are still waiting to receive their new anti-hijacking training, he's confident that his colleagues - as well as the passengers - are determined never to let another Sept. 11 occur.

'Just no way'

"I don't even concern myself with hijacking anymore, because there's just no way, outside of every passenger being killed. They're not even going to get close to the cockpit." But he adds, "It's the baggage that really concerns me right now."

The aviation security bill requires all checked baggage to be screened for explosives by Jan. 18. Several congressional aides have said that some airlines have asked for a 30-day extension, citing a lack of machines, dogs, and trained personnel. But Mike Wascomb of the Air Transport Association, the major carriers' trade group, says the airlines are committed to making the deadline. "Congress has laid out an aggressive time table, and we're committed to fulfilling our obligation," he says.

The unions representing the pilots are committed to keeping the airlines on track as well. The Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations (CAPA) has set up a group that will monitor their progress and report on it regularly.

"We're doing it for two reasons," says Capt. Bob Miller, CAPA president. "One is to keep spotlight on it, and second, if things are being accomplished, it will give people confidence."

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