- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 8, 2001

As the aftermath of September 11, the American economy is in the tank and becoming more submerged every day.

One major reason is the fear of flying. Americans are locked in their homes, delivering a crippling blow to airlines, hotels, restaurants and the once-enormous tourist industry. The result is a large increase in unemployment across the socioeconomic board.

This depressed economy is not only the work of terrorists. It is also due to the failure of the government to restore security and consumer confidence in the airline industry over the last tumultuous eight weeks. The major offender here is the Federal Aviation Administration, the culpable FAA.

Even before the World Trade Center tragedy, that agency, which is in charge of airline and airport security, was insulted by a multitude of angry critics. The comptroller general of the United States showed, in effect, that the FAA was a dysfunctional organization when it came to airline security.

"As we reported in May 2000, our special agents used counterfeit law enforcement badges and credentials to gain access bypassing security checkpoints and walking unescorted to aircraft departure gates," says a recent General Accounting Office report. It added that the Department of Transportation's own inspector general staff gained access to secure areas 68 percent of the time.

The FAA's own people showed that 20 percent of dangerous objects carried by passengers were missed by screeners. The main reason? The FAA has foolishly turned over security to the cost-conscious airlines ,which hired low-bid contractors whose often minimum-wage screeners included illegal aliens, people without a command of English and even convicted criminals.

Now, eight weeks after the tragedy, have things changed much?

No. Despite the long lines at airports, not much has changed. The basic problems are still there. The head of the flight attendants union recently charged that the FAA is still under the "virtual control" of the airline managements, the very people they are supposed to regulate. "Every day," she says, flight attendants are pressured by airline management to skip vital security measures in order to have an online departure. The airlines and the FAA are spinning an elaborate fairy tale to try to convince passengers the system is secure enough. It's not." She adds: "The FAA refuses to make the necessary changes to provide real security."

Just this past Monday, a Nepalese student with an overdue visa passed through security with seven knives, a stun gun and a pepper spray even after two other knives were found on him.

There are at least three reasons Americans (at least half of them) are not flying:

• In the first, a new scenario, cabin doors must be well-secured so hijackers cannot seize the plane. What has the slow-moving FAA done to fix that problem? It has issued a directive for airlines to voluntarily do something not defined within three months. Then they are given three more months to develop a plan to permanent strengthen them, then up to 18 months to make the final fix. Meanwhile people are not flying, their gut reaction to FAA delay, delay, delay. This time line should be condensed, requiring a permanent fix within three months.

In this overaccommodation to airlines, the trademark of the FAA, passengers are not certain what has been done, what will be done, and when, or even which airlines are doing what. The FAA is not talking. Alaska Airlines and Jet Blue have announced that they are putting in Kevlar bulletproof cockpit doors, but not everyone is flying to Alaska, or on budget trips to Florida.

• The second reason for not flying is that passengers want an armed marshal on every flight. In the 1970s, we had 1,000 marshals flying. With 30,000 flights a day, that number is still far from enough. But since then, the FAA lost interest in marshals who are the mainstay of the El Al safety system. The number of U.S. air marshals went down, to as low as 100 on September 11.

The program is being revved up, with 70,000 new applicants seeking a job paying from $35,000 to $80,000. But there is no word from the FAA on progress, again to supposedly confuse the terrorists. It is also confusing the public, who don't want to get on a plane which has no air marshal. The timing? No one except the FAA knows, and they're not talking. Again, we must assume long delays.

Is there a solution? Of course. America has hundreds of thousands, perhaps more, retired police officers and military personnel with 20 years experience, people in the 41-49 age bracket who could assume that job with a few weeks' training. But the FAA has refused to hire them. Why? Because they have set an arbitrary age limit of 40, using a two-generation-old concept of what makes someone middle-aged. If they would hire these "old" 40-somethings, we could have one on every single flight within weeks. Then more people would have the confidence to fly.

• The third dilemma has to do with bags that go into the plane's hold without being screened. In the old days, the FAA assumed that if the owner was flying, he would hardly put a bomb in his luggage. But today, terrorists seem to invite death as an entrance to paradise.

Fortunately, there are expert CAT-scanning machines that spot a bomb and automatically stop the conveyor belt before the bag gets into the hold. We now have 150 such machines in use, but they screen only 5 to 10 percent of bags those belonging to suspicious passengers selected by a computer profile. The inspector general has just announced that some of the machines at airports were not even in use.

What has the FAA being done about this in the last eight weeks?

Absolutely nothing. While several nations have buying more of these $1.3 million machines, the FAA has not ordered an additional one.

Experts believe we need 2,000 of them to screen every checked bag. The manufacturer, which holds 90 percent of the market, says it can rev up to 80 machines a month if it gets the order from the FAA and perhaps double that if told to build another plant.

Meanwhile, new legislation is in the works to shift security from the airlines to the government. Two bills, one in the Senate (S. 1447) and one in the House (HR. 3150) have been passed and will go into conference to find a compromise a nine-week delay due to partisan bickering.

The bills are similar with some outstanding differences. The Senate bill totally nationalizes airport security by making all 28,000 screeners into federal employees. The House bill calls for federal supervision and standards but permits private contracting of screeners. There are other important differences. The Senate bill mandates the halting of flight training for aliens, which was behind the tragedy. (In the absence of this legislation, what has the FAA done to stop terrorists from taking flight training here? Absolutely nothing. Eight weeks later, it's still status quo ante.)

The Senate bill names a deputy secretary of transportation to coordinate airport and airline security. Unfortunately, he works in "conjunction" with the FAA administrator, the position whose two-decade failure has brought us to this point in history. (Strengthened cockpit doors were recommended in the 1970s.)

But the House bill has one seemingly superior clause. It calls for appointment of an undersecretary of transportation in charge in security, one who appears to be highly independent. In amending prior legislation, this new security czar for all transportation, including air, trains, surface and maritime, seems from the bill's language, to call the shots. Often, the bill "strikes" the FAA administrator's power and gives it to the new undersecretary who is named by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This makes it possible to cut across bureaucratic lines and get the job done.

Who can best do this job? Just as Winston Churchill was atop the short list to lead Britain through WWII, the short list for a security czar in this war contains only one name Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York City.

As of today, New York has a new mayor-elect. Rudy could be free to take an immediate federal job as the undersecretary of security at the Transportation Department, a job much more important than it sounds. The FAA should be relieved of all security duties for airports and airlines. Mr. Giuliani, not the FAA, would restore the confidence of the American flying public.

By facing the challenge head-on, even it means kicking several sensitive bureaucratic butts, he could get America flying again, and restore the faltering economy.

Martin Gross is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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