Protecting the Skies

Increased security following any airplane-related terrorist attack ought to be, and has been, the expected norm. All too often, however, airport security seems to swing from relative complacency to high alert, and then back again.

This time, there can be no "back again."

On any given day in the United States the number of flights in the air can exceed 5,000, and the vulnerability of many of these to hijackers was amply demonstrated Tuesday. With airport security now a higher priority, and the gradual reopening of the skies this week, passengers must be willing to accept limits on convenience, and higher fares to pay for added safety. The need to tighten security was evident long before Sept. 11. In 1999, Boston's Logan Airport and major airlines there were fined $178,000 for at least 136 security violations.

Airport security was ratcheted up following the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and again after the crash of TWA Flight 800 five years ago. But a General Accounting Office report in April 2000 still found that "serious vulnerabilities in our aviation security system exist." The report noted that security screeners using X-ray scanners and other devices often failed to detect test items, such as pipe bombs and guns.

Chillingly, just last year, GAO inspectors were able to penetrate secure areas of a number of airports with 100 percent success. One especially weak point: the practice of contracting out the hiring of low-wage workers to screen for security and to load food on to planes. And in a report this year, US Inspector General Kenneth Mead found that airport operators and airlines often did not conduct required background checks of new hires.

Air travelers can expect longer waits, as thorough searches of planes are conducted before passengers can enter. That, along with more random checks, more guards, no knives of any kind, and no curbside or off-site check-ins. Only ticket-holders will be allowed through security checkpoints.

Implementing these and other possible security measures may be the easy part. Living with them, and sticking with them long term, will take diligence and patience.

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