Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2001 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

We're on the way to airline security

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- WHEN it comes to airline security, Congress is getting there -- but it's not there yet. Far from it, as almost any passenger can tell you. Security is still all too random, like the checks. (''Has anyone given you anything to take with you? Has your baggage been under your control at all times since you packed it? Is that Osama with an O or U, Mr. bin Laden?'')

A month after Sept. 11, things have gone from completely chaotic to only slightly maddening, which is progress. A month after Dec. 7, 1941, things were probably just as jumbled. It takes a while for a giant to wake up, but once it does ... .

For the moment we are still rubbing our eyes and trying to get oriented while reaching for our Cipro. This war is still in its early, disorganized stage.

Last week a unanimous Senate did pass a comprehensive bill that creates a new, 28,000-strong corps of airline screeners to check out passengers and their baggage at major airports -- and makes provisions for the federal government to finance security at the smaller ones.

The House may prefer to have the government set standards and contract out this security service, the way they do in Europe and Israel. When terrorists first started hijacking planes, governments there assigned the crucial job of sniffing out terrorists at airports to government bureaucracies -- but found that system inefficient. So they switched to private agencies.

Some of us would hesitate to entrust airline security to a Post Office-style bureaucracy. It's not the efficiency of the system that matters most now but the safety -- which ought to be ironclad, double-locked and airtight.

Taking a flight out of Little Rock the other day, I didn't mind standing in a line that reached clear back to the baggage carousels at 5 o'clock in the morning. I had time to make some new friends and even saw some old ones. It was almost as cozy as Wal-Mart. What worried me was that not everybody's baggage was being searched item by item.

The least that should be done, and strangely enough isn't, is to match checked luggage with the passengers, so no mysterious ticking case gets into an airliner's baggage hold.

It would help if each passenger were asked more than the predictable, routine questions -- the way the alert checkers at Israel's El Al do it. Would the process take a little more time and another dollar or two a ticket? Even if it did, it's past time American airlines got the message: Safety First.

It was reported the other day that, despite the new equipment now required at the country's most vulnerable airports, most airlines were still not scanning all checked baggage. Somebody's attention needs to be got. Forcefully.

The bill now past the Senate would also require that cockpits be reinforced so that pilots are secure. Any attempt to break in would result in a landing at the nearest airport. The bill also mandates some other changes that were obviously needed a month ago, but only halfway.

For example: This bill expands the number of sky marshals aboard planes, but doesn't put one on every flight. And it lets the Federal Aviation Authority decide whether pilots can carry side arms. Why not just go ahead and arm the pilots?

This may be the most mystifying gap in the bill: Pilots are entrusted with the safety of the entire plane, its passengers and crew, yet Congress has hesitated to let pilots carry guns. It's irrational. And, in a frontier society like this ours, almost un-American.

Imagine the good that could have been done if the pilots aboard those hijacked planes that were turned into guided missiles had each had a trusty .38 on his hip.

Many pilots are veterans who have handled firearms before, and they could again with a brief refresher course and maybe one of those quickie psychological checks they give Army enlistees. Whatever's necessary, let's do it and do it now.

At the moment, the ``plan'' for warding off terrorists who make it aboard an airliner is to have stewardesses and passengers defend themselves with their bare hands, and maybe pillows and blankets, against thugs who have shown no compunction about slitting throats.

This is less a plan than sheer desperation. It's already been resorted to a time or two since Sept. 11 against the occasional drunk or nutcase, and we all ought to applaud those passengers who rushed forward to take care of business.

But there has got to be a more rational way to deal with terrorists -- a way that ensures they will never terrorize anyone again. Not in this world.

Let's roll.

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