Will Air Travelers Pay for Security?
Heightened vigilance means more airport delays and higher costs
America's relationship with air travel appears to be on the cusp of significant change.
The United States has long lagged behind European nations in airport security - partly because Americans put a premium on convenience and partly because of a sense of invincibility. Terrorism is something that happens abroad.
But the downing of TWA Flight 800 - even though the cause is still being investigated - challenges those assumptions. It is raising questions about how much consumers will pay, and how much inconvenience they'll endure, for the sake of more security.
Clearly, along with the suntan lotion, passengers will have to pack more patience. Greater vigilance at airports has already begun to cause delays. No one boards a plane now without a photo ID and without answering a string of questions about baggage. Curbside luggage check-in is disappearing. And whether it be in surcharges on tickets or in taxes, consumers will ultimately foot the bill for additional security, ranging from more undercover police to increased baggage checks and new scanning devices.
"There are lots of things we can do about [protecting travelers], but people have to accept further restrictions, both in terms of costs and inconvenience," says Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.
A CBS news poll released this week indicates more than 3 in 4 Americans want more government regulation of airlines. Nearly all those surveyed say they would pay more money and spend a longer period of time in airports to increase safety.
But they had limits. Only 16 percent of fliers said they would wait more than an hour, and only one-third said they would pay more than $50 extra for a round-trip ticket.
"I don't mind if there is more security. The more you get the better," says Tony Figueroa, a college student seeing a friend off at Boston's Logan Airport. "I could pay $20 more for it. More lines are a problem, but it is a necessary precaution."
Because domestic flights have not been targets for terrorists in the past, US airports lack the security measures used in many other countries. Luggage on domestic flights is not X-rayed. Much of the cargo and mail loaded on planes goes unchecked. X-ray machines that are in place can't detect plastic and liquid explosives - the primary choices of today's bombmakers.
But airports here have taken more precautions in recent months, including asking travelers if anyone requested them to carry a package on board and strictly enforcing no parking at curbsides.
"We have those kinds of measures in place - certain things that are visible," says Joe Lawless, director of public safety for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which is responsible for security at Logan Airport. "We also have additional police that people don't have access to, and other things in use that wouldn't be effective if we said what they were."
But there's a lot more than can be done, experts say.
The Federal Aviation Administration has spent millions on upgrading security at airports since the crash of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. According to a 1994 General Accounting Office report, however, the FAA has been slow in assessing weaknesses to terrorist attacks and enacting safety measures - especially in terms of searching luggage, cargo, and mail loaded onto planes and in providing clearances to security personnel.
The GAO report also criticized the turnover rate for airport screeners - the people who monitor x-ray machines. The GAO found that the turnover rate was more than 50 percent, and said the screeners weren't adequately trained or paid.
The turnover rate is fairly high, says Logan Airport's Mr. Lawless. "That's partly due to the pay rate; they don't make much over minimum wage," he says.
Many experts say the US should adopt more of the policies used at airports in Europe and Israel, for example.
"We always complained that standards here were not up to overseas standards," says John Bean, who worked for TWA in Europe after retiring from the CIA.
Mr. Bean helped establish a security program for TWA in London based on Israel's stringent policies. Each passenger now goes face-to-face with a security agent, who matches up the person with the ticket and passport. If anything is a bit unusual - such as a ticket paid for with cash - the security agent sends the passenger to a supervisor. The supervisor often empties the bag and X-rays everything in it.
Security agents also watch everything loaded onto the planes. Each bag is examined, and agents make sure the passenger identified on the bag is on the plane. If a bag is not matched up with a passenger, it comes off the plane.
THE GAO report notes that the FAA has made progress. It has spent $90 million in the past nine years on studies for equipment that would detect explosive devices other than metal. It paid millions for a thermal neutron analysis machine in the early 1990s that was found ineffective. Another new scanner, which the FAA has spent $8.6 million on so far, is being tested at airports in Atlanta and San Francisco.
Made by InVision Technologies in Foster City, Calif., the CTX5000 works like a CAT-scan machine used in hospitals. It displays the separate densities of each object in a bag - making it possible to detect liquid and plastic explosives.
The FAA expects the tests, which will identify success and false alarm rates, as well as delays to passengers caused by using the machine, to last until 1997.
Meanwhile, a new method is being developed called pulsed fast neutron analysis, a technology that its sponsors tout as more reliable and efficient for identifying explosives and illegal drugs.
The analysis is done by a computer in "virtual real time," says Rand Fishbein, a public-policy consultant in Washington working on the new technology.
A small accelerator shoots neutrons (about equivalent of a dental X-ray) into a bag and transmits a signal of the atomic signatures of everything in the container back to a computer, Mr. Fishbein says.
The advantage over current systems, according to Fishbein, is that it doesn't rely on humans to distinguish between a hairdryer and gun or a Barbie doll and plastique molded into the shape of one.
But who should pay for new security devices and personnel is up in the air. "The public shouldn't have to pay for [these safety precautions], says Marty Salfen of the International Airline Passengers Association. He says the funds should come from a $10 billion government trust fund that is set up for the FAA - funded by a 10 percent tax on every airline ticket.
*Brian Humphreys contributed to this report.