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Safety in the air

Editorial for Oct. 4, 2001

Although President George W. Bush and other government leaders have been urging Americans to "get on board" commercial airliners and start flying again, the overall picture is hardly reassuring.

How is this for irony: On the same day Bush was in Chicago, in a pep-rally setting designed to convince the public they could feel safe flying again, the government announced it had new rules in place that would allow regional commanders of the North American Aerospace Defense Command to authorize shooting down airliners that appeared to be threatening.

That's a severely mixed message. On one hand, the official word is, "It's safe to fly," but at the very same time the officials are establishing guidelines to shoot down airliners in the event they are hijacked.

In an effort to downplay the dangers, John Haire, a spokesperson for Edwards Air Force Base sought to reassure the public with these words: "Just because you've got fighters escorting you doesn't mean they're getting ready to blow you out of the sky," Haire said.

Does that make you feel safer?

There's more irony: On Sept. 27, Gov. Gray Davis of California was at Los Angeles International Airport, with media and all their cameras in tow, as part of his campaign to reassure California citizens it was not dangerous to return to the skies.

While he was at the airport, an Air Canada jetliner with 138 passengers made an emergency return to LAX, under the escort of two F-16 fighter jets, after an Iranian man on the flight threatened to blow up the plane and shouted that he wanted to kill all the Americans on board. Once the jet was back on the ground, armed airport police stormed aboard, shouting "get your heads down!" to the passengers. The man was hustled off the plane and taken into custody without further incident, but the psychological damage was done.

President Bush has announced new security plans, including expanding the air marshal program; fortifying cockpit doors to protect the pilots; putting the federal government in charge of security, including screening and testing security personnel; and putting National Guard troops on duty at all commercial airports.

That's nice, but problems remain. For example, security experts are pointing out that only a small percentage of baggage carried in the cargo holds of airliners is checked for explosives, and virtually none of the mail and cargo is checked. Also, recent immigrants to the United States are allowed to work as airport security personnel, and it is difficult to conduct background screening checks on immigrants.

Worse, while the Bush plan adds federal oversights of airport security arrangements, the security personnel themselves would continue to be privately employed. That's a weak link.

Clearly, at least up until Sept. 11, the airline industry was cutting corners in its security procedures and not taking it seriously enough: Those responsible for the safety and security of passengers were often paid minimum wage, with security contractors coming in with the lowest bids usually getting the work. That made no sense, yet it was an easy way for the airlines to maximize their profits.

Also at fault is the traveling public in general, which has appeared more interested in promptness and convenience than in security. That attitude has to be changed.

Here's another item to consider: pilots are now asking for federal permission to carry sidearms on the job, while flight attendants want to arm themselves with stun guns. Obviously, that suggests the airline personnel closest to the situation are not convinced the new security measures go far enough.

And what's to stop a hijacker from grabbing a stun gun from a flight attendant and using it to commandeer a plane?

As much as airline officials and political leaders want us to feel safe, the world has changed, and the reality is as unpleasant as it is correct: If someone is willing to die to take the lives of others, there is almost no defense against it.

Despite all the talk, the situation regarding airline safety is unfortunately clear. Yet in a real sense, it's a situation that has always held true: Fly at your own risk.



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