- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003


Every day, a commercial pilot or flight attendant notices something odd on a plane or at an airport that could be a terrorist probing for security weaknesses.

A passenger asks an inordinate number of questions about airline procedures or takes pictures on the plane. Someone follows a pilot at an airport. Young, Middle Eastern-looking men change seats during a flight or argue with a flight attendant.

Could they be testing the reactions of air marshals or flight attendants? Security experts say this is possible, because terrorists prepare for attacks months and years in advance by following people, looking at things, taking pictures.

Aviation remains high on the list of terrorist targets. The government recently warned that al Qaeda has shown a continuing interest in trying to sneak improvised bombs onto planes using personal items, such as cameras, socks or jacket linings.

Steve Luckey gets several calls a week from pilots who wonder whether the odd things they see on the job are part of terrorist preparations. Mr. Luckey, a retired captain who chairs the Air Line Pilots Association’s national security committee, said he gets the calls because pilots don’t think they have anyplace else to go.

“I think we’re missing a lot of the subtleties that would tend to indicate situations that may not be obvious,” Mr. Luckey said.

Pilot and flight attendants’ unions want the government to create a central clearinghouse for information about unusual events in the aviation system so that possible patterns can be detected.

“We’d like all reports of unusual events to be going directly to the government for analysis,” said Chris Witkowski, director of air safety and health for the Association of Flight Attendants.

American Airlines’ union maintains a database, but doesn’t have anyone with whom to share it.

“Right now we are sitting on piles of information and creating this database, and we’re fearful it’s going nowhere,” said Paul Rancatore, an American Airlines captain and deputy chairman of the Allied Pilots Association Security Committee. “We get security breached every day,” he said. “A good start for us is to provide our information to federal law enforcement.”

The committee gets copies of security debriefing forms that pilots send to the airline’s security department. It’s up to the airlines to forward the information to the government.

Stephen McHale, the deputy administrator for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), said the agency has a process in place that encourages reporting of unusual incidents.

“We pay attention,” he said.

Company security departments pass along information about possible terror probes reported by pilots and flight attendants, and the TSA sends it to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which was created to bring together information gathered by the CIA, FBI and other agencies, Mr. McHale said.

But a recent report by the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, said the center hasn’t put in place “the necessary staff or framework for analyzing information and sharing it broadly.” Markle is a private philanthropic organization.

Others say airline security departments probably are too overburdened to collect and analyze daily reports from pilots and flight attendants.

Mr. Luckey envisions a database to which all 67,000 pilots and 15,000 flight attendants can submit unedited reports of incidents that strike them as unusual. They could be trained in a day or two to identify potential terrorist activity from disruptive passengers, he said. And government intelligence experts then could mine the data, looking for behavior patterns that they can act on or investigate.

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