Airlines' shredded safety net

If a bomb brought down Flight 800, Americans' illusion of air security went with it

Published July 18, 1996 12:15PM (EDT)

Perhaps it was a "one-in-a-million" accident that even the Boeing 747's stellar reputation for safety could not have overcome. Did a flock of Long Island geese fly into one of Flight 800's engines? Could an unsuspecting and untracked private plane have collided with the jumbo jet, causing the explosion and fireball?

If so, then what we have is a tragic but perhaps largely unavoidable accident. But the odds of that, safety and aviation experts are concluding, are slim. The weather was clear, there was no wind shear and, so far, no indication that the crew encountered difficulties in the climb. It was something sudden and catastrophic -- more likely, an accident waiting to happen.

The experts on last night's TV coverage made one thing clear: There are huge and expanding holes in the airline safety net. Mary Schiavo, who abruptly resigned last week as inspector general with the Department of Transportation, told CNN of flawed parts discovered at TWA, an airline only recently out of bankruptcy. On the heels of the ValuJet revelations -- and the slipshod performance by the Federal Aviation Administration -- we read today of the indictment of five former employees of the Mesa Air Group on charges of falsifying maintenance records and using substandard parts to cut costs. And we still don't know just how it was that detached engine parts flew into the cabin of a Delta jet recently, killing two people.

Schiavo made another stunning statement on CNN last night: In a recent large-scale test, she found a 40 percent failure rate in security at America's airports. In other words, 40 percent of her testers could have walked on a plane armed or carrying a bomb. Other aviation and security experts acknowledge that safety procedures are not as tight as they once were; while all bags are X-rayed, passengers are not as carefully checked these days. The kind of cursory examinations passengers are put through by usually minimum-wage employees of private security firms at airports certainly do not inspire much confidence.

Neither does the American government's attention to security threats abroad, as witnessed in the Pentagon's incredibly lax arrangements in Saudi Arabia before the recent bombing there. We don't know for sure yet whether the explosion aboard TWA Flight 800 was caused by a bomb, and if so, whose bomb. But we do know that the flight originated in Athens, notoriously one of the most insecure airports in the world. Several years ago, the Airline Pilots Association called for a boycott of flights coming out of the Greek capital, an idea that didn't sit too well with the State Department. If it turns out that a bomb loaded in Athens brought down Flight 800, then at the very least it's time to launch such a boycott.

If it turns out, instead, that terrorists somehow got through security at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the psychological consequences for the American public will be devastating. Whatever illusion of safety remained after the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings will be entirely gone. We will justifiably be afraid of getting on a plane. The careful economic balance that the airline industry and the government have long maintained between safety and security on the one hand and "efficiency" (i.e. the need to get planes in the sky as often as possible) on the other, will be shattered.

What then? Do we accept the occasional lost plane as the price of on-time travel? Or do we adopt an Israeli level of security -- every single bag searched, every passenger closely scrutinized -- and accept the endless delays and missed flights? Neither is a terribly attractive option.

What if it was terrorism? Join the discussion in Table Talk.

Quotes of the day

Dole's press relations

"It's a humorless group. I don't want to say anything about it. I would rather talk to those people over there. They don't ask any questions."

-- Bob Dole, on whether he was following his political strategists' advice not to talk to reporters. (From "Dole Attacks Clinton on Education Issues," in Thursday's New York Times).

Lead of the Day: GOP's King of Hearts

"BOISE, Idaho -- William Levinger wasn't exactly the ideal congressional candidate.

The anesthesiologist spent four crucial weeks before the GOP primary here in a mental hospital. The confinement came after he stripped to his underwear and offered a female reporter $5,000 for a kiss during the taping of a television interview in May. Asked why he was running for Congress, he once responded that it was because he couldn't swim to Hawaii.

Despite his liabilities, Dr. Levinger won 32 percent of the primary vote against incumbent freshman Rep. Helen Chenoweth. It was a clear sign of the problems that Rep. Chenoweth and other members of the firebrand freshman GOP class are finding as they set out on their first campaign for re-election."

-- (From "House GOP Freshmen Are Facing Bumpy Road in Election Drive as Counterrevolution Spreads," in Thursday's
Wall Street Journal).

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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