Flying the fortified skies

Starting this week, some pilots are armed, culminating 1-1/2 years of security upgrades.

Kathleen McGahran has a whole new routine before heading to the airport - and flying, routinely, around the world. First, the executive-finance consultant gives herself an extra hour. Then she goes through her briefcase to be sure there's nothing that could raise alarms from airport screeners - like her laser pointer. She packs that in her overnight bag - which she used to carry on, but now checks.

"In my busy season, when I was flying several times a week, I figured it was costing me an extra five hours a week," she says.

That's the price she and other frequent fliers have learned to pay in the brave new world of American airport security. In the last month, the nation's airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have reached several milestones designed to safeguard the nation's skies - which were radically altered after 9/11.

First, all cockpit doors have now been fortified to prevent intrusion. And starting this week, some planes could be flying with armed pilots. They're the culmination of what transportation officials call a "sea change" in airport security, a revolution undertaken in a year and a half - and despite the skepticism of many critics. The changes include:

• All airport screeners are now specially trained federal employees.

• 100 percent of checked baggage is now screened.

• Thousands of air marshals, as opposed to dozens before 9/11, are now dispatched on flights each day.

• There's an increased local and state police presence at all airports.

• Specially trained dogs now patrol airport perimeters.

• Each airport has its own explosives-management plan.

• There's unprecedented coordination among the FBI, the CIA, and airport-security officials.

The end result, security experts agree, is that the system is far more secure than at any time in history.

"I don't know if you're ever going to get a 100 percent secure system," says Dale Oderman, an aviation expert at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "But we are definitely safer than we were."

But that safety has come at a price. For Ms. McGahran, it's in time and frustration. And while she believes the new measures will prevent other planes from being used as bombs - as happened on Sept. 11, 2001 - she doesn't believe they'll prevent another terrorist attack.

"I think all of the security is to calm the public," she says. "It might stop the occasional stupid kid, kind of thing, but if a real terrorist wants to get through, they will. It's a suicide thing."

That's the kind of resigned attitude that airlines and TSA officials are determined to overcome. They want to convince the public that the so-called hassle factor does reap real benefits in terms of security.

"We have put in place multiple layers of security, understanding that no one measure is a silver bullet," says Brian Turmail, a TSA spokesman. "Our challenge in moving forward is that we constantly need to evaluate our system, to tweak it, test it and make it better."

And there's plenty to do. Take the machines that screen checked baggage for explosives. They have error rates - false alarms - of anywhere from 25 to 40 percent, which means that at least one in four bags must be searched by hand. Then there are the smaller explosives-detection systems used at security checkpoints. In some airports this winter, they registered "positives" on just about every bag. That's because they were identifying some common chemicals used to de-ice roads as explosives.

But Mr. Turmail says these are the kinds of problems that are constantly being dealt with.

Many security experts do credit the TSA with transforming the culture of aviation security in a relatively short time. But they also say there's another challenge ahead: making the system far more efficient.

"Security is much better, but at far too high a cost in dollars," says Aaron Gellman, an aviation expert and the founder of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University. "We're spending far more than we need to on passenger security, we could do just as well for much less money."

Ms. McGahran - and many airline executives - would also like to see a burst of efficiency that would radically shorten the time it takes to get from the airport check-in line to the plane.

"If you fly a lot, it's just too much of a nuisance," she says.

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