Passengers Face Stricter Scrutiny To Keep Flying the Skies Friendly

If a White House commission gets its way, the airports of tomorrow will make security - not service - Priority No. 1.

At ticket counters, passengers will have their names fed into computers to see if they fit the profile of a terrorist. Their luggage will be painstakingly matched with the passenger list so that every bag is accounted for, and sent through sophisticated machines that can detect traces of explosive chemicals.

Ticket prices will most likely rise to help pay for the security checks, and two-hour waits for domestic flights may become more common.

The White House report, to be unveiled today, marks a controversial shift in United States air travel as security takes precedence over privacy, cost, and convenience.

While Europe and Israel have put passengers through stiff security checks for years in their efforts to combat terrorism, US travelers have, until now, faced far fewer constraints.

Civil libertarians say some of the security measures violate a passenger's constitutional rights to privacy. Of particular concern is the proposal of creating a massive computer base of the names, pictures, genetic samples, travel history, fingerprints of passengers, and other information the American government keeps on its citizens, instead of focusing on more basic criminal evidence.

Passengers "have an expectation of safety," says Gregory Nojeim, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. "But they will not be safe if people are targeted for searches based on incorrect criteria instead of evidence."

The airline industry, which supports the recommendations of the commission set up by the president shortly after the TWA crash, says strict security measures are the most responsible choice for the times.

"Terrorism has come to our shores, and we need to aggressively combat the threat to our nation," says Carol Hallett, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, which represents 22 US-based airlines.

The July 17 crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, New York, is already changing the operational paradigm at airports. While the cause of the TWA crash is still unknown, investigators' leading theory is that a bomb was placed on board by a terrorist.

Boston's Logan Airport recently purchased some of the new bomb-detecting devices that are already in use in Atlanta and San Francisco. "It's going to take some time to work the bugs out," admits Joe Lawless, director of the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Some security experts see the new security plan as necessary, but say that technology cannot replace a well-trained human eye.

"You look at people who might be lying," says retired CIA officer John Beam, a consultant on airport security. In one case he recalls, a traveler had been asked by a stranger to smuggle diamonds aboard a plane and then give the bag to an accomplice once he reached his destination. "A security person noticed that the traveler was nervous, looked inside the bag, and there were bombs."

OTHER experts say the White House is putting emphasis in the wrong areas. "It's like having a house with six doors and putting all the locks on one door," says Frank McGuire, an air security consultant in Bethesda, Md.

There are tradeoffs in using ultrasensitive scanners to find explosive chemicals in bags, he adds. You can set the machines to process bags quickly, but you may miss smaller bombs. Or you can program the machines to catch trace amounts of suspicious chemicals, such as nitrates that are used in plastic explosives, and end up finding that chemical in common items such as ski boots and wool sweaters.

Washington could get better results by funding a rewards program to induce terrorists to turn one another in. "Money is a marvelous motivator," Mr. McGuire says.

But whether the government or the airlines pay for the new security - a question still unresolved - travelers will ultimately pay the tab.

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