Wednesday, November 21, 2001

After nine weeks of partisan wrangling, the president finally received and signed the “Aviation and Transportation Security Act” into law

on Monday. Despite the delay, it is a step forward in making flying safer, helping a limping economy regain its strength.

But a close examination of the 79-page document reveals large holes in security that Congress should look at again shortly. The bill also needs more definition on several cloudy fronts.

What the bill does well is establish a federal staff of 28,000 screeners whose higher salaries and benefits will attract better personnel. It also establishes an undersecretary of transportation for security, which ensures we hope that security will no longer be under the control of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a dysfunctional organization whose missteps are now legend.

That new job should not be given to a bureaucrat but to someone whose background ensures he will not try to please the government but will be the champion of the flying public. (I have already suggested Rudolph Giuiliani for the job.)

What are the holes in the bill? There are several.

First, it requires that the cabin doors be locked during flight so hijackers cannot gain control of the plane. That’s a necessity. But the bill does not take immediate steps to have a toilet (even a portable one), water and food inside the cockpit for long trips. Without that, stronger doors will be useless. Hijackers will just wait until the pilots open the door to go the lavatory or to eat.

Secondly, it requires that within 60 days all checked bags be inspected for explosives. That’s impossible under the present overgenerous system in which passengers can not only take a carry-on bag but check several large bags which go into the hold all of which have to be inspected.

Although we will be buying up to 2,000 bomb-detecting machines, that will take two years to accomplish. Meanwhile, what will we do to keep bombs out of the hold, the real nemesis of our system?

The answer is simple, if radical. Passengers should not be allowed to take any carry-ons into the plane, except for a small purse for ladies. In addition, we must restrict checked bags to one large one. That bag should be opened and manually inspected in front of the passenger, then immediately put into the hold. The time and energy once used to check carry-ons will be transferred to larger bags for the hold. Until then, we are playing Russian roulette with our lives and our economy.

This is surely inconvenient, but dying is still less convenient.

Until we have enough bomb-detecting machines there is no other way to keep a suicide terrorist from placing a bomb aboard the plane the main deterrent to flying. (With thoughts of a bomb in the hold, my wife refuses to fly to Florida this winter.)

The act also requires that all paid cargo be checked for bombs, an impossibility. Many pieces of cargo are too large for the detecting machines and others are packed tightly and not available for true checking.

The solution to the cargo problem?

Commercial passenger planes should no longer be allowed to carry cargo. Or mail larger than letter size. Cargo can be shifted in entirety to UPS and Fed Ex, whose planes do not carry passengers.

Another hole in the act is the supposed political “compromise” which permits airports to opt out of the system after two years (not three as the media have reported) and revert to private or local control of screening. This, of course, is nonsensical. Having decided on a federal system, what are we supposed to do with the government employees, who by that time will have been well-trained in their jobs? This type of partisan horse trading only weakens our security.

In the case of air marshals, the legislation will appropriate more money for more marshals, which is positive. But it fails to make it mandatory that every flight have a marshal aboard. The bill says the undersecretary “may” provide a marshall for every flight, but says he “shall” provide one for all “high-risk” flights. As far as passengers go, their flight is always a high-risk one.

To accomplish the latter goal, we will need twice as many marshals as originally projected.

(I was glad to see that the age requirement of 40 was dropped for retired police and military personnel, as I and I presume others had suggested.)

One of the most significant mistakes in the new bill applies to training of aliens as pilots. That FAA oversight originally resulted in al Qaeda terrorists learning to fly at our own flight schools, then destroy the World Trade Center. The original Senate bill prohibited the training of aliens without a background check and approval, but the final bill contains another damaging “compromise.”

According to the new bill, if the training plane is lighter than 12,500 pounds an old FAA cutoff any alien, including future terrorists, can obtain a pilot’s license at our schools without any background check whatsoever.

How small is a 12,500-pound plane? Not very small. In fact, quite large. A King Air twin engine turboprop that seats 11 qualifies, as do sizable business jets that seat eight. Almost every crop-duster plane is lighter than 12,500 pounds, which makes biological warfare against us much easier. Having mastered these planes, terrorists can do considerable damage, then graduate upward.

As incredible as it may sound, in another enormous mistake of the FAA, anyone citizen or immigrant can still obtain a pilot’s license, including a commercial license, without a background check of any kind. The certificate is a mere piece of paper. The new act doesn’t change the ease of getting a pilot’s license but does suggest that the FAA hand out an ID with the pilot’s picture. Small consolation.

With the holes in airline security, we continue to make it easy for terrorists. The new undersecretary for security has his job cut out for him, but he needs the help of an educated public and a tougher, less partisan Congress.

Martin Gross is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide