Securing the Skies

Flying the nation's skies during the holidays revealed a few post-Sept. 11 changes for the better.

No passenger, for instance, dares display "air rage" at a flight attendant for fear of being tied up by other passengers. And thanks to a would-be shoe bomber on an American Airlines flight, many flyers are being asked to take off their shoes, much like entering a Japanese home.

Security inspectors seem much more earnest and thorough, although not nearly as competent as National Guard soldiers supervising them. And more air marshals are onboard, ready to keep the cockpit secure.

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But obvious gaps remain in guarding against further terrorist attacks in the air. And the nation's airports are finding it difficult to meet added-security deadlines set by Congress.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and others cited a lack of equipment and personnel as the reason the department couldn't make a Jan. 18 deadline. Less than 10 percent of the 453 US airports now have equipment to detect bombs in check-in luggage. Analysts say it will cost $5 billion to buy the additional 2,100 machines needed. Currently, 153 bomb detectors are installed at 47 airports.

While cockpits are more secure and the flying public is more alert, millions of checked bags still go unscreened. A small fraction of those bags are scanned for explosives.

Matching individual bags to individual passengers - a step reportedly being considered as a fast way to quickly comply with a new law - sidesteps the goal of actually keeping explosives from getting onto planes.

While such bag-matching may be a strong deterrent, it may do nothing to stop a suicide bomber. Airlines routinely match bags with passengers on international flights, but they've avoided doing so on domestic flights, citing delays.

Yet so far, Americans have shown a willing patience at airports. The government and airlines can show the determination and flexibility required to have luggage-searching done while still trying not to delay passengers anymore than is necessary.

The current deadline of Dec. 31, 2002, to have all bags electronically screened may need reconsidering. A year is simply too long to wait.

Yes, the deadlines are ambitious. So, too, are such requirements as hiring and training 28,000 workers as federal security screeners within a year. But so, too, should the efforts be to implement them.

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