Honeymoon Flight to Maui? Not These Days

Until airlines and law-enforcement agencies minimize the risk of hijackings, this soon-to-be married couple won't be taking wing

By Hal Freedman

"Federal transportation officials told Congress...that steps are under way to increase airline security, beyond measures announced after [the] terrorist attacks, but didn't say what they were," The New York Times reported the other day.

I am soon to be married, and my wife-to-be and I had planned on flying to Hawaii for our honeymoon. Should we still go, or should we find a spot closer to home? All over America, individuals and companies are evaluating the necessity of air travel, and many are deciding "not yet." Such decisions are usually blamed on the lack of consumer confidence that now plagues the industry after terrorists on Sept. 11 plowed two hijacked airliners into New York's World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon. Those incidents threaten the very survival of some carriers, we are told.

And yet, the airlines themselves have done little to buoy our confidence. True, the Federal Aviation Administration has set new rules banning curbside check-in, allowing only passengers through security checkpoints, and increasing the number of armed security staff at airports. But such moves leave the impression that the industry is touting inexpensive, incremental changes in the face of a major security disaster. Its half-hearted measures don't make me feel safe, which is what I want to feel before I'll get back on a plane.

EL-AL's EXAMPLE.

  There are two components to making me feel secure: One is preventing a terrorist from getting on my plane in the first place, whether armed with a gun, a box cutter, or a chopstick. The second is providing protection on the plane itself, in case a fanatic makes it through security.

So far, the announced measures have primarily addressed prevention. The most obvious way to improve in-flight safety would be to adopt measures taken by Israel's El-Al, which provides at least one armed, undercover security guard on every flight. Although the FAA has announced that a task force is "looking at...expanding the number of armed air marshals," this notoriously slow-moving agency would, on its own, take years to significantly increase in-flight protection. According to Newsweek, currently fewer than 50 sky marshals are now protecting 10,000 daily commercial flights.

A trained, armed marshal would act as a formidable deterrent to poorly armed hijackers. And if an emergency did arise, the marshal would know how to defend a plane's passengers and crew. America heard terrifying stories of passengers forced to fight the Sept. 11 hijackers on their own, aware that they would probably die trying. This horror cannot be repeated.

AIRBORNE MARSHALS.

  Knowing that a trained marshal is on board would be highly reassuring to average customers like me and would demonstrate that the airlines are serious about protecting passenger safety. In conjunction with stringent preboarding security, this would be enough to get me airborne again.

Obviously, thousands of marshals can't be hired and trained overnight. And who should pay for them -- the airlines or the government -- is another issue. But it makes sense to figure that out and move as quickly as possible. Ultimately, consumers will foot the bill through higher taxes or higher air fares. And we would pay willingly to restore our sense of safety. Until that happens, a generation of newlyweds will probably choose the local lake over Maui or Niagara Falls.

Freedman is a technology project manager and musician who lives 15 blocks from the destroyed World Trade Center