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Miami Airport Exemplifies Changes in Airline Travel Since Sept. 11 - 2002-09-04

The September 11 terrorist attacks triggered abrupt changes in U.S. air travel and aviation. The changes have affected the way Americans move about the country, and brought greater scrutiny of foreigners attending flight schools.

Miami International Airport handles more than 100,000 passengers a day. Getting on a flight is often more cumbersome than it was a year ago.

Departing passengers must negotiate multiple security checkpoints - first, when they check baggage, then to gain entry to the gate area, and finally to board the aircraft. Searches typically entail a careful examination of all carry-on items, a check of footwear and other procedures that might have seemed needlessly invasive just a year ago. All the while, security announcements drone on endlessly in English and other languages.

Airport director Angela Gittens says procedures at Miami International, like at all airports across the nation, have been transformed since September 11.

"The double-passenger screening - the screening at the passenger checkpoint, the screening at the gate, of course - is a big change," she explains. "We went from airlines contracting for the screeners to the federal government contracting for the screeners. Of course, the biggest change is yet to come, and that is additional baggage screening."

Ms. Gittens says there are other changes not readily apparent to the traveling public, including tighter screening of airport employees when they report to work and greater monitoring of the entire facility via hidden cameras.

Bob Walters waits for a flight to Chicago. He says airport security was clearly lacking prior to September 11, but from what he can see, it appears to have improved since then.

"It could not be any worse than it was [before 9-11], so it has got to be better," he says. "I see them [screeners] stop people and go through their luggage, which they did not used to do at all. I have seen them take things out of people's bags that could be dangerous weapons."

Mr. Walter's wife, Katy, points out she feels safe flying but is more cautious when traveling. "I am a lot more aware of people and what is going on around me than I ever was [before 9-11," she said. "I mean, you are just more cautious; you watch more."

Airport director Angela Gittens stresses that security at MIA has been boosted without undue delays for travelers. She says the public seems to be aware of the need for the measures and any resulting inconveniences. And, far from complaining, most people are appreciative of efforts to ensure safety post-September 11. Those efforts, she says, must constantly be reviewed and upgraded.

"We need to continually crank up our system," says Ms. Gittens. "We want multiple layers of processes, technology, systems and people. We cannot settle into any particular routine."

The terrorist attacks have forced changes, not only at the nation's airports, but also at U.S. flight schools, more than 75 percent of which are located in the state of Florida. Several of the September 11 hijackers, who flew jetliners into the World Trade Center, received flight training at Florida flight schools.

John Bulger, who heads the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's Miami office, says visa requirements for all foreigners wishing to study in the United States are now being strictly enforced.

"The total adjudication process was re-evaluated - that is the process that is used to determine who is approved to come and go to schools in the United States, whether academic schools or trade and technical schools," he explained.

The effort appears to be bearing fruit. In July, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service detained a man believed to be the estranged stepson of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein who had come to Miami for flight training without obtaining a student visa.

Flight school operators say they, too, are keeping a closer eye on their pupils. The head of Florida's state homeland security office, Steve Lauer, emphasizes that the goal is not to discourage foreigners from coming to study in the United States, but to ensure that the skills learned are not used for criminal or terrorist enterprises.

"If you want to get a visa and come to the United States as a student and go to flight school, you can [do that]," he said. "What you will probably find is a great deal more scrutiny of students in general coming from overseas - not in the sense of [racially or ethnically] profiling anyone, but simply because that is where the [9-11] attack came from."

Flight schools report little decline in business post-September 11. Not so for U.S. airlines - air travel ground to a virtual halt in the weeks after the attacks. An economic recession and rising fuel prices have also hurt the airlines. One major U.S. airline, U.S. Airways, filed for bankruptcy last month. Aviation analysts says other airlines could soon follow suit.