Beefing up airport security. Safety plans weighed against logjams, logistics problems

Terrorist incidents against airlines have unleashed a flurry of international meetings, high-sounding resolutions, and swift moves to shore up security gaps at the world's airports. But there is a growing consensus that only determined, long-term, and collective action by governments and airlines, that is tailored to specific threats, can solve the problem.

The response so far has been exceedingly energetic. Security at most airports, from Rome to Vancouver, has been tightened. Both the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Travel Association (IATA) have scheduled special meetings on airport security for the end of this week.

In the United States, one Senate subcommittee holds hearings today on nine bills, all aimed at strengthening airport security. US Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole has submitted a classified report to President Reagan on international airports in need of stepped-up security efforts. She also has the power to suspend operating authority to US carriers serving such airports if security breaches continue.

Airlines based in the US have announced, through the Air Transport Association (ATA), intensified screening of baggage and passengers. That effort has been bolstered by new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations that halt curbside baggage check-in for international flights and require airlines to increase the number of physical searches of carry-on bags.

According to the FAA order, bags can be brought on flights only by passengers with tickets who actually board the aircraft. Unaccompanied freight and mail cargo must be physically checked, X-rayed, or held 24 hours.

The airlines may well hire on extra security personnel to keep passengers and baggage moving efficiently. Asked if passengers should arrive at airports earlier than usual, ATA spokesman Tom Tripp says, ``It probably will take a little extra time but there's no way to quantify it now -- we always like people to get to the airport early.''

Yet despite all the changes, there are growing signs that many responsible for airport security also see a strong need for caution and selective decision-making.

Though some have predicted airports would quickly become ``siege cities'' in the face of the current crisis, that is not happening. Many passengers traveling this week in the US report minimal if any delays. Though a number have canceled hotel and flight reservations for Athens, the scene of the recent hijacking, many are traveling elsewhere rather than stay at home. The number of Americans traveling to Europe this summer is still expected to hit a new high.

``Passengers know there's cause for concern but unless these incidents continue with the same kind of frequency and intensity, I don't think it will do very much,'' says Martin Deutsch, editor and publisher of Frequent Flyer Magazine.

That same sense of the need to keep perspective on this issue is also surfacing in the current debate over whether or not to inspect all passenger-checked baggage and to intensify the US sky marshal program.

After days of deliberation, the FAA decided not to call for comprehensive inspection of all checked baggage. ``It's a tremendous logistical and technological problem to check everything going on an airplane,'' notes Chuck Miller, an independent Washington, D.C.-based aviation safety consultant.

Lack of ready technology, in addition to the time and expense involved, appears to be an important part of the decision. X-ray screening, while good for detecting guns, is not as effective in finding explosives, the key hazard in checked baggage.

Though the FAA has been experimenting for more than a decade with various electronic sensors that pick up nitroglycerin vapors, many devices give off numerous false alarms, and research continues. Experts say the recent spate of terrorist incidents is sure to spur stepped-up efforts in this field, and Congress now appears ready to offer some federal funds to help it along.

In the meantime, the squadron of explosive-sniffing dogs, available to most US and overseas airports when such problems are suspected, is expected to grow. ``It costs $4,000 to $5,000 to train each dog, but they're very mobile -- they can cover a large area very quickly,'' says Jerry Jerome, an independent aviation safety consultant formerly with the Flight Safety Foundation.

There has also been a notably cautious response to President Reagan's call last week for an expanded sky marshal program on international flights of US carriers. Both pilots and airlines oppose the move as dangerous. The White House now describes its proposals as only one of several options under review. Though the Senate has approved a measure to fund such a program, a Senate source calls it rushed, ``seat of the pants'' legislation that the House is unlikely to duplicate.

There is also an ongoing debate within the aviation community over the wisdom of publicizing world airports with known security problems. Though Congress is considering a law to require such a listing and President Reagan may decide to make the DOT list public, US pilots say such spotlighting of airport weaknesses could serve as an open invitation to terrorists.

``I think everybody's reassessing everything right now,'' cautions Leo Duggan, technical vice-president of the Airport Operators Council International. ``There's still hope that this kind of thing [terrorist incidents] might run its course in a relatively modest time period, and that we could get back to normal again.''

One thing is certain if problems continue -- only a concerted international effort can make an effective difference.

``The real key to this problem is collective action at the government level,'' says IATA spokesman Harry Atterton.

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