Is It Safe to Fly Yet? A Transportation Official Says There Still Are `Alarming Lapses of Security' and `Systemic Vulnerabilities' Associated with U.S. Air Travel. Should New Airline-Security Laws Calm Our Fears?

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Signing a landmark aviation package into law on Nov. 19, President George W. Bush called for "a new commitment to security in the air" that would make air travel as safe as possible. The most-traveled holiday of the year had arrived, and it remained to be seen whether such assurances would get the public to return to commercial flight.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesman Paul Takemoto describes some of the security enhancements that already have been put in place to make flying safer. "We have bolstered security in every phase of the flying process, from the moment passengers first arrive at the airport to when they are actually on the plane," he tells INSIGHT. "They'll see scrutiny all the way around: They'll see canine teams, uniformed law-enforcement presence, increased security at [baggage-] screener checkpoints, increased security at the gates themselves." Not that it will be apparent to the flying public, "but there also are more federal air marshals flying onboard."

Passengers meanwhile are being limited to one carry-on bag and one personal item, such as a purse or a laptop computer. But, Takemoto advises, "When in doubt, check with the airlines or put it in your checked luggage."

While all of this is going forward, says the FAA spokesman, National Guard troops are being deployed at baggage-screener checkpoints. There is more and tighter screening of passengers going through those checkpoints, more hand-wanding, more random checks and "other measures that we can't talk about," he says.

But for fearful fliers will that be enough? Some of the same issues reported earlier in INSIGHT (see "Are Friendly Skies the Safest Skies?" Jan. 1) apparently still remain. At a congressional hearing on Nov. 14, Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead gave a grim assessment. "Despite existing and new security requirements there are still alarming lapses of security and some systemic vulnerabilities that need to be closed," he warned. The two problems named were no surprise: airport baggage-screening checkpoints and checked-baggage security.

Since Oct. 30, more than 100 Office of Inspector General (OIG) personnel have conducted security observations at 58 airports nationwide, Mead reported. "On Sept. 14, three days following the terrorist attacks, we arrested 12 non-U.S. citizens who illegally obtained security badges to gain admittance to secure areas at a major U.S. airport." Joined by FAA security specialists in mid-October, for example, the OIG officials were dispatched to scrutinize screening operations at Philadelphia's International Airport. During that investigation they discovered that, despite already being on probation for past violations, "shoddy practices in the hiring and training of security screeners continued to exist."

Those employees worked for the country's largest airport-services contractor, Argenbright Security. "A random sample of Argenbright employees at these airports found cases where employees (1) were not able to pass a skills test, administered on the spot by OIG personnel, required for employment; (2) had criminal records disqualifying them from employment as screeners; or (3) were foreign nationals not authorized to work in the United States" Mead reported. In 2000, Argenbright's managers pleaded guilty to criminal charges of falsifying documents on screener background checks.

DOT Secretary Norman Mineta and Attorney General John Ashcroft promptly directed the OIG to expand their investigations to 13 other airports where Argenbright performed security services. Meanwhile, politicians and industry representatives were doing their best to calm customer fears about flying.

On the Southwest Airlines Website recently, company President and Chief Operating Officer Colleen Barrett told passengers: "We are doing everything possible to provide safe, secure and dependable travel for you, your family and your business associates. …