Air travel in turbulent times

Airports, airlines, and passengers in the US have adapted quickly to new security measures following a terrorist threat to transatlantic travel. Have Americans found their sea legs as travelers in stormy times? Flexibility is the watchword. But an averted tragedy also shows air travel can be made still safer.

Not much more than a week ago the summer vacation season was all about high gas prices and crowded planes. Now Americans are expressing their gratitude that an apparent plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard several flights between Britain and the US was discovered and thwarted last week.

Grumbling about stepped up security inconveniences – from the mandatory removing of shoes to a greater likelihood of being hand-searched to a much longer list of banned carry-on items – is understandable. But the vast majority of passengers has shown flexibility and patience.

While Britain is still experiencing some travel disruptions, security line waiting times at US airports seem to have returned to previous levels. The "new normal" may have arrived more quickly than we might have expected.

Some travelers even point out that it's probably safer than ever to fly because of the heightened security.

The new ban on bringing most liquids and gels into the passenger cabin is likely to stay in effect for some time. That may mean more passengers reluctantly decide to check bags. Few but the most tolerant travelers enjoy their stay at the baggage carousel, which can seem to turn like a wheel of fortune. Will luggage be sent to Seattle instead of St. Louis? Will it show up at all?

Despite $3-a-gallon gasoline, some people now are opting to drive, rather than fly, to destinations that are only a few hours away. Amtrak and bus companies have an opportunity to show that they can provide timely, reliable, and inexpensive alternatives to shorter flights.

Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, has said rightly that no "silver bullet" exists to end all terrorist threats. The best strategy is to put as many layers of security in place as possible. If terrorists clear one barrier, another will deter them.

What new layers are needed? That's an important discussion. Only a fraction of the cargo shipped on passenger flights, for example, is being screened today. That's a concern.

Mr. Chertoff has said that contractors will replace his Transportation Security Administration employees in simple jobs such as handling checked luggage, which will free TSA employees to concentrate on screening bags, making identity checks, and looking for suspicious behaviors.

Behavioral screening – discerning stress or nervousness or other more subtle signals – could be more widely employed. But it must not devolve into racial or ethnic profiling. That is more likely to alienate the very groups whose help is most needed to catch terrorists. "Traveling while Asian" is not a criminal offense, as one British police official has said.

The airline industry and travelers were hit by unexpected turbulence last week. But they seem to have kept their balance: Be alert but not distressed. Be wise but not panicked.

Otherwise, the terrorists have already won.

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