Airlines tout safety, yet missteps persist

Tighter screening, passenger profiling are in place, but public confidence sags.


Despite an unprecedented push to make the skies more secure than ever, fear of flying remains high in America.

And why not? Take Linda Purdy's story. Last weekend, she was pulled out of the security screening line for extra scrutiny. She was "wanded" and patted down, and all her belongings were thoroughly searched.

"I was impressed," says the assistant attorney general of Vermont.

Then she was told to get on her plane. She did. The only problem was it was the wrong plane. And nobody had noticed until she was comfortably ensconced in her seat.

"It just shows you how far they still have to go," she says.

This is the challenge for the aviation industry: tightening up the loopholes in a far-flung system with more than 140 major airports and tens of thousands of employees that for years routinely put security second to passenger convenience - in part, because that's what the public demanded.

The change requires a shift in the entire aviation culture. That is proving to be a slow, difficult process. It's subject to things like the attention span of individual screeners and the political will on Capitol Hill, where legislation that could federalize airport security is expected to come up in the House this week.

"We have such terrible deficiencies in our airline system that have been allowed to exist for such a long period of time that you're not going to fix them overnight," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group. "Still, I think flying is safe, not because of what they're doing, but because terrorists have to work where no one is looking."

Airline officials contend they are looking very carefully. They're quick to tout and defend their new security measures - steel-reinforced cockpit doors, the presence of armed air marshals, heightened training for screeners, and increases in the number of random searches.

Not always smooth flying

But with almost each announcement comes a setback for the industry.

• Last week, a group of flight attendants took to the picket line, attacking the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines and calling the increased security imposed so far "a scam." They also demanded training in nonlethal weapons, like mace or pepper spray.

• Almost every day, there's a story of security screeners missing something - a three-inch hunting knife, knitting needles and scissors, even razors.

• Earlier this month, the inspector general of the Transportation Department released a report chastising the airlines for not properly screening as many checked bags for explosives as they're capable of.

"At some locations, the machine was not turned on. At others, the machines were on and staffed with screeners but no baggage was being screened, and at others, baggage was being screened only sporadically," Inspector General Kenneth Mead wrote in the report to a House subcommittee.

But according to the National Safety Council, flying remains the nation's safest mode of transportation. In fact, it's as much as 37 times safer than driving, even taking into account Sept. 11.

In an average year of scheduled airline transportation, 300 lives are lost, but 41,800 people die on the nation's highways.

"We're very concerned that when people make a decision to travel, if they choose out of fear not to do so by air, they are doing themselves and their families a disservice," says Chuck Hurley of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit public-service safety organization.

Some pilots say that so much has changed behind the scenes - from crew procedures to the use of computerized passenger profiling - that the skies are far safer than ever before.

Several airlines refused to confirm some of the new behind-the-scenes procedures, citing security considerations.

But Michael Wascom of the Air Transport Association, the major carriers' trade organization, did say that some airlines are now using computer profiling to identify passengers with unusual travel patterns who should be singled out for extra scrutiny.

That system is also now tied to law-enforcement and national-security databases.

And then, there are the passengers themselves, who are far more proactive. Ms. Purdy's experience is again illustrative. When a terse announcement was made in the plane asking, "Passenger Linda Purdy please come to the front of the plane, and bring all of your belongings," people looked at her curiously as she gathered her things. Then a second, far sterner announcement was made, and the other passengers looked at her with outright suspicion.

'On high alert'

"I can tell you one thing: Everybody was on high alert for Linda Purdy," she says. "I was embarrassed. I wanted to tell everybody I didn't do anything wrong, and I had a badge. But it also made me feel good the people were so alert."

But on her way home, she also got another letdown: The screening process, which had been so thorough at her departure, appeared to be cursory this time.

Airline officials are well aware of the unevenness of the system, despite efforts to shore it up. That's why they're advocating the federalization of airport security.

"I think that will go a long way toward reassuring the public that significant changes have been made," says Mr. Wascom. "That's the cornerstone and foundation of improving security."

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