Keeping the Barbarians Away from the Gate

Tightening U.S. airport security--which lags far behind that of Europe and Israel--will be central to U.S. antiterrorism efforts. It's also one of the biggest hurdles. Terrorism experts and government regulators have repeatedly found enormous deficiencies in this arena, but little has been done to correct the problems.

Classified reports prepared by the General Accounting Office and the Transportation Dept. earlier this year revealed that inspectors could easily bypass security and could have boarded planes with guns or explosives, officials say. They also note that none of the nation's 19 high-volume airports--which include Washington's Dulles International, Boston's Logan International, and Newark International--have run vulnerability checks recently.

One of the weakest links in the security chain occurs at the X-ray machines used to scan carry-on bags. The agents who monitor those devices are poorly trained and among the lowest-paid airport workers. "You try to get that job in the hope of getting a job at a fast-food place, which pays more," says a former government official. Turnover is high--complicating the issue of training.

OLD GEAR. Representative John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee who left a meeting at the Pentagon moments before the Sept. 11 attack, says airports also lack the latest gear. Since 1996, Congress has given the Federal Aviation Administration $244 million to install explosives detectors in airports. The FAA has delivered 129 such machines to the nation's 400 airports. But there is a considerable lag time in getting these devices up and running, and it is not known how many are in use.

The FAA has just taken some incremental steps toward better security. Later this month, it will begin requiring that companies operating X-ray scanners and other security equipment be certified. And it is shipping out 1,400 new X-ray machines to all the nation's airports, at a cost of $80 million for equipment, installation, and training. The new machines will monitor a screener's hits and misses, and those who do poorly will be pulled off and retrained. If companies don't meet performance standards, they will lose their FAA certifications.

Nevertheless, for years, the agency overlooked some obvious risks. Until Sept. 11, the day of the terrorist attacks, it allowed passengers to carry on knives up to four inches long--which means the box cutters reportedly wielded by some of the hijackers were legal. On Sept. 12, it banned all carry-on knives.

SOFT DOORS. Lesson learned. And the next reform may be in aircraft construction. David Benoff, an editor at Business & Commercial Aviation (which, like BusinessWeek, is part of The McGraw-Hill Companies), advocates hardening airline cockpits. "The doors have an aluminum-honeycomb structure," he says. "I can kick that down."

At the least, U.S. airlines could take a cue from foreign carriers. In Japan, All Nippon Airways Co. is working with authorities to install a new generation of X-ray machines at airports. El Al Israel Airlines has security guards aboard all flights. All luggage undergoes special checks, and most pilots are former fighter pilots with training in handling emergencies. And airport security in Israel begins 1 kilometer outside the airport, with roadblocks and vehicle checks.

Such measures would complicate U.S. air travel and burden airlines. It is now up to the government and the public to decide whether those measures are worthwhile.

By Paul Raeburn in New York and Lorraine Woellert in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.