Pilots and passengers fly again, gingerly
Congress considers a bailout of struggling industry, as new security measures begin.
NEW YORK — America's airlines are again taking to the skies - cautiously.
But last Tuesday's terror has permanently altered flight conditions. And the most pressing question in the new climate remains: Is it safe now to fly?
The answer affects everything from family vacations to business operations to airlines' very financial survival.
"You have to find a way to make it safe," says Glen Phillips, a retired TWA pilot who was himself hijacked in the early 1970s. "We rarely have equipment failures now. And the FAA continuously works to eliminate mistakes, so it is safe ... except ... for the terrorists."
And keeping them in check right now, he says, "seems like an insurmountable task."
Before reopening airports after an unprecedented nationwide shutdown, the FAA demanded complete evaluations of each level of security.
Over the weekend, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta set up a task force that by Oct. 1 will report back on ways to tighten up further the nation's aviation security systems. In the meantime, the airlines are calling on the federal government to take over all security operations at the nation's airports.
While some pilots and aviation experts remain skeptical about levels of security, the airlines are confident the skies are safe with the changes made so far.
"It is safe to fly, or our planes would not be back in the air," says Michael Wascom of the Air Transport Association, the industry's main trade association.
The increased security is evident at the nation's airports, which are all open, with the exception of Washington's Reagan National.
Police armed with pistols and semiautomatic rifles now roam the terminals. Curbside check-in has been eliminated. And there are other, less visible changes.
Armed federal marshals in plainclothes will now be passengers on some flights, and their numbers are expected to increase dramatically.
Airport screeners will receive extra training and more scrutiny. Screening companies that fail the FAA tests will lose certification.
"I would hope this means we're finally changing the focus from passenger convenience to passenger safety," says one commercial airline pilot.
Flights are still limited, lines are long, and delays and cancellations are common. Yet most passengers are patient and grateful for the extra security.
Tom and Anne Featherstone spent 2-1/2 hours in line at LaGuardia just to check in at American Airlines.
"I'm not bothered by it at all," Mr. Featherstone said. "It's more secure than ever, although it doesn't mean that anything is absolutely safe."
But there are jittery passengers, like Beth Kellogg from Wappinger Falls, N.Y., who was stunned that security wasn't tighter when she departed from South Carolina on a flight to LaGuardia.
"It wasn't up to snuff in Myrtle Beach. They scanned my bag, but nobody really checked it," she says. "I even left it unzipped so they could, but nobody touched it."
Ms. Kellogg is now thinking of canceling a vacation that was planned for next month. Airline analysts believe passenger traffic could drop more than 15 percent in the next six months, costing billions of dollars.
There are concerns of a different kind in the cockpit. "What if I go out there to fly tomorrow, and I have Middle Eastern passengers on the plane and others want them taken off?" asks another pilot. "We're vulnerable, and we just got a big wake-up call."
Still she says, she won't tolerate discrimination: If people went through the proper security screening and interviews, they should be allowed to fly. "We all have to look deeper inside of ourselves and remember these are our fellow citizens."
She and other pilots expect they'll be getting a new kind of training. "Our collective training ... is based on a model that no longer exists. It's the 'we're going to go land in Cuba' model,' " she says. "I've always been taught: 'Don't try to be a hero, don't rock the boat, keep them calm, comply with instructions in so much as it's feasible safety-wise....' But the paradigm obviously has shifted."
The increased security measures will add to the airlines'
costs. For instance, the FAA banned passenger planes from carrying mail and other cargo in their holds. That could also mean billions of dollars in lost revenues.
All this comes atop the economic downturn. Many of the airlines already in the red could go directly into bankruptcy.
The airlines are asking Congress for $15 billion dollars in loan guarantees and direct aid. They also want the federal government to take over responsibility for airport security and to deploy a highly visible armed presence at the airports.
"Tuesday's events have made it clear that aviation security equates with national security, and national security is a government responsibility," says Wascom.
Many pilots believe federalizing the security system is long overdue. Glenn Phillips, who had a Baretta Automatic pistol put in his ear on one nonstop flight from San Francisco to Boston in the early 1970s, also believes that pilots themselves should be armed. After his hijacking, he suggested it, but the idea was dismissed as too dangerous.
"You give a guy a $100 million piece of equipment and 250 lives that he's in charge of, and then say he can't handle a pistol. It's absurd," he says. "If those guys had some way to protect themselves, [last week's hijackings] may not have happened."