The United States government has imposed tough new airport security measures following the attacks by hijacked airliners against the World Trade Center in New York and U.S. military headquarters in Washington. Many observers say increased security is long overdue. Others say better security, while necessary, is an insufficient deterrent by itself.
Lax U.S. aviation security is cited as one reason terrorists succeeded in a coordinated hijacking of airliners that toppled the World Trade towers and penetrated the Pentagon. Houston, Texas air security consultant Charlie LeBlanc says that U.S. precautions have never been as strict as in Europe and other regions, but there has been a reason. "The threat levels at our airports have also been consistently less than in some of those countries," he says. "Plus, we've never envisioned a scenario of an aircraft being hijacked and then that aircraft being used as a human missile towards buildings."
Now the threat has changed, and the United States has responded. Among stringent new measures the U.S. Transportation Department has announced is deployment of uniformed federal agents to augment regular private airport security nationwide. It is also seeking help from the Army's elite anti-terrorist Delta forces. The department hopes that the agents and troops will eventually supplement armed federal marshals who provide security aboard selected flights.
The head of George Washington University's Aviation Institute, Daryl Jenkins, says flying on U.S. passenger jets will never be the same. "Over the next five to 10 years, what we will see is that our airports will become more militarized and will become very European," says Mr. Jenkins.
Other new government-mandated security measures eliminate check-ins outside the terminal, reserve boarding areas only for ticketed passengers, and require security sweeps of airliners before boarding is allowed.
These measures are important to Charlie LeBlanc because he says it is difficult to thwart a hijacking once a terrorist is on board. He points to one weak link in the security chain; the private guards who screen passengers and baggage at security checkpoints with sophisticated metal detectors and x-ray scanners. Mr. LeBlanc says they are low wage personnel usually poorly trained with a high turnover rate. "Our technology here in the U.S. is very high, but it doesn't really matter if we put them behind a million-dollar machine," he says. "If we don't have well motivated, well trained, and well paid personnel, then it does open up some weaknesses within our system."
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says the best way to deal with the problem may be to employ trained civil servants in these jobs. "That whole issue of do we nationalize or federalize passenger screening? That is a longer term issue that we are looking at as we speak," he says.
Transportation Department officials concede that the new security measures may slow commercial aviation and ask the U.S. public's patience and restraint as they go into effect. But the editor of the British magazine Aviation Security International, Philip Baum, thinks passenger tolerance may diminish, especially in a crowded airport atmosphere. "One cannot simply go to the level of security as one has in Europe in the United States at this stage," he says. "The airports themselves are simply not big enough for keeping passengers there for possibly two hours before a flight."
However, thwarting terrorists requires more than aviation security, according to the George Washington University's Daryl Jenkins. In his view, intelligence is also important, but believes U.S. intelligence collection has weakened since the collapse of communism in Europe. "From the events of this week, we know just how brilliant terrorists have become in the last decade," says Daryl Jenkins. "They are a different breed than we have dealt with in the past. Because of this, we have to have more vigilance on the part of our federal government than we've had in the last 10 years."
Charlie LeBlanc laments that this time, the group involved in the New York and Washington airline terrorism was better than the system in place to stop it.