What cost air safety?

Flight attendants demand that flying be made safer, through measures like screening all bags -- but the airlines are resisting.

Published October 8, 2001 9:19PM (EDT)

Because of airport security loopholes, a terrorist today could still check a suitcase bomb at the ticket counter, representatives from the major flight attendants' union have been telling members of Congress in recent days. Plus, they charge, the recommendations by the Department of Transportation's rapid-response task force on airport security released late Friday, as well as the airport security measures advocated in the Senate by Sens. Ernest Hollings, D-S.D., and John McCain, R-Ariz., leave these and other gaping loopholes wide open.

The stakes in this battle rose even higher on Sunday, when the U.S. retaliated for the Sept. 11 terror attacks by bombing multiple sites in Afghanistan. Experts have warned that U.S. reprisals could lead to new strikes by those allied with main terror suspect Osama bin Laden, and worries about airline safety could continue to grow in the weeks and months to come.

And if the airline industry has anything to say about it, these loopholes will remain. Regardless of the $15 billion airline industry bailout package that became law on Sept. 22, the powerful Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, says that such security measures are both cost-prohibitive and unnecessary. The ATA promises to fight the flight attendants' proposals tooth and nail.

And based on the Senate legislation, as well as the transportation task force's recommendations, it looks as though the airlines will win. After all, the airlines have a history of such "victories." As the Los Angeles Times detailed on Saturday, many recommendations issued by the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, formed after the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, went unheeded and were vociferously opposed by the airline industry.

This won't be the first time the Association of Flight Attendants has sought a more vigorous screening of all baggage, including luggage checked at the ticket counter and stored in the cargo bin. Currently, only a small percentage of checked baggage is inspected, and even then it is often only X-rayed. In addition to having every bag X-rayed, flight attendants want all baggage to go through the high-tech explosive detection system that passengers may have occasionally faced with their carry-on bags, which are swabbed and tested for explosive materials. Airports that don't have that technology should require the hand inspection of all baggage, the flight attendants' union says.

The flight attendants are also seeking security measures to ensure that each piece of baggage in the cargo bin of a plane matches up to a passenger on that plane, and to keep food and beverage carts in secure locations in airports.

Michael Wascom, spokesman for the American Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, says that the flight attendants' suggestions would present "a logistical nightmare."

"That particular program wouldn't have had any impact on stopping these terrorists," Wascom says. The airlines instead favor greater screening of passengers, including having the Justice Department alert the airlines about individuals on the FBI's "watch lists" -- a list that two of the 19 terrorists were on. "Instead of just focusing on bags, we're focusing on people," Wascom says. But this approach seems to pay no heed to the fact that most of the Sept. 11 terrorists were unknown to the U.S. intelligence community -- or that four of the terrorists' identities are still unclear and may never be conclusively determined, according to a Saturday report in the Washington Post. The main reason why the U.S. is still at a state of readiness, if not panic, is because of all the unknown Islamic extremists within its borders.

On Thursday, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, Patricia Friend, met with Democratic leaders of the House Transportation Committee to try to rectify what her organization considers major security loopholes. Friend met with Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., and Rep. William Lipinski, R-Ill., the ranking party members on the aviation subcommittee, and is working to schedule meetings with their GOP counterparts.

A House Transportation Committee source says that it's "hard to say" whether these recommendations will make it into the House airport security legislation, which is slowly being negotiated on the staff level. Negotiations between Oberstar and Lipinski with Republicans on the committee, led by the chairman, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, reached an impasse on Tuesday over the issue of whether baggage and passenger screeners at airports should become federal employees, a move that Democrats and some moderate Republicans favor.

The flight attendants' union supports the federalization move. But largely lost amid that debate -- which has held up debate over the Hollings-McCain bill in the Senate -- are the flight attendants' fears of potential security breeches that few government agencies seem to be taking seriously. These dynamics are nothing new; too often the concerns of the flight attendants are treated by Congress with a disdain similar to that shown by Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., to Anne Marie Smith.

Dawn Deeks, a spokeswoman for the flight attendants' union, says that most people she talks to are under the mistaken impression that the airlines already inspect checked luggage. "The public perceives a level of safety out there that's just not there," Deeks says. "They think things are being done right now because everybody's making a big show that security measures are taking place. But it's a false sense of security."

Deeks notes that the new, higher-security Reagan National Airport has supposedly initiated one of the security measures favored by both the flight attendants' and the pilots' unions: limiting one carry-on per passenger, so as to help security personnel focus. But even that's being implemented so loosely as to be meaningless, she says. Passengers are allowed one carry-on item and one personal item such as a purse or briefcase. It's still two carry-ons, she says.

The Federal Aviation Administration has instituted new security measures at all airports since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, banning baggage checks at off-airport locations, keeping everyone but ticketed passengers from proceeding through security checkpoints and more closely monitoring vehicles parked near airports. Gun-carrying air marshals will soon be onboard certain flights, President Bush has asked governors to call in their National Guard troops to provide additional security at airports and FAA canine teams will be on patrol.

But Friend has been trying to make the case that even with these fixes, a terrorist could very easily check a suitcase bomb at the ticket counter. Since very few checked bags are screened, it would likely proceed undetected all the way into the cargo bin of a commercial aircraft. And the terrorist wouldn't even have to be suicidal -- he can refrain from getting on the plane, since domestic flights in this country require no baggage-to-passenger matchup.

With reports that pilots will be afforded more security through reinforced cockpit doors and perhaps even the right to carry firearms onto planes, flight attendants are concerned that it will be up to them to be the first line of defense in case of future terrorist attacks in the air. They are trying to emphasize the need to significantly beef up ground security, particularly in baggage screening, which they see as woefully inadequate. They are also moving to reduce the number of carry-on bags per passenger to one.

But the flight attendants are meeting with quiet opposition. A House Transportation Committee source says that airline lobbyists have already been trying to squash the baggage-to-passenger matchup proposal as unnecessary since the Sept. 11 terrorists were suicidal, and therefore more than willing to be on a plane with a bomb on board.

The Transportation Department's airport security task force recommendations could have been written by ATA. (Two of the task force's four members, it should be noted, were airline executives.) The report notes that "improvements in explosive detection technologies and passenger and baggage screening are also being developed. Properly deployed, these tools can be a powerful weapon in the war against terrorism. The Rapid Response Team urges that available technologies be incorporated more widely in our airport security program as soon as practicable."

Hardly a call to arms. And certainly a far cry from the stringent security measures the flight attendants want to initiate immediately.

Critics say that on the issue of airport and airline security, the airline industry, chiefly represented by the ATA, has consistently voiced a businessman's regard for the bottom line. In testimony before a Senate Aviation subcommittee in April 2000, Richard J. Doubrava, managing director of security for the ATA, cautioned the Federal Aviation Administration about its proposal to certify baggage screeners, saying, "It is important that the FAA not create a bureaucratic structure that becomes over-burdensome to the industry." The new certification requirements might economically hurt local security contractors hired by airports, Doubrava said.

ATA spokesman Wascom makes similar arguments about what would happen today with the flight attendants' recommendations. "First and foremost you would probably have some small cities that would lose service just because of the delays that would result," he says. "The way the current airline system is set up, with a hub and spokes, is geared toward moving passengers, baggage and cargos quickly and efficiently. A full bag-match, or full inspection of all baggage, would cause massive disruptions to that system. They've tested this, and that's why we're focusing on other measures that should be put in place," ones focused on passengers.

He adds that these proposals are also based on a false sense of security. "Domestic bag match does not prevent savvy terrorists from learning about how bag-match is done and circumventing it -- including the use of suicide bombers." He says that this isn't an issue of airline security, but rather of national security. The airlines have yet to see any proof that the Sept. 11 terrorists violated even one security regulation, he says. "Box cutters were allowed by the FAA," he says.

The Air Line Pilots Association has issued 30 security recommendations, some of which come close to the flight attendants' suggestions, though they are not exactly the same. On Sept. 25, Captain Duane Woerth, president of ALPA, testified before the House Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee, saying that fewer carry-ons should be allowed on board "in order to let security screeners spend more time examining each item brought on the aircraft. We strongly support increasing the percentage of bags subjected to search."

This is not, of course, the same thing as inspecting every bag entering an aircraft. Additionally, the pilots don't call for baggage-to-passenger matchup, nor for secure storage for catering carts. But a spokesman for ALPA says that Woerth's testimony did ask for dissemination of a photo encryption technology that would expedite baggage-to-passenger matchup, and for enhanced security regulations for airport workers. "There are just gray lines between the two," says ALPA spokesman Ron Lovas, allowing that the flight attendants' recommendations are stronger but that the pilots don't necessarily have a problem with them.

According to the General Accounting Office, in the pre-Sept. 11 flying climate, more than 2 million passengers and their bags needed to be checked each day. The flight attendants' security measures would invariably add to the time and expense afforded each flight.

But concern for the bottom line was clearly heeded too much prior to Sept. 11, proponents of the tighter safety regulations say. And many fear that these concerns -- voiced most vociferously by the airlines -- are being heeded too much now as well. The Department of Transportation's rapid-response team on airline safety included Friend, as well as Woerth from the pilots association, but the airport security task force did not have any "worker representation," Deeks says.

The members of the task force included Northwest Airlines CEO Richard H. Anderson, Southwest Airlines chairman Herb Kelleher; American Association of Airport Executives Chip Barclay, and former U.S. Customs Service commissioner Raymond Kelly.

The Hollings-McCain bill contains a provision requiring the Department of Transportation to assess and report to Congress on the effectiveness of "the Federal Air Marshal program, security screening processes for carry-on and checked bags, and the security training provided to airline flight and cabin crews," according to a bill summary provided by Hollings' office.

But that's not enough, say the flight attendants, and the Department of Transportation is already listening too much to the airlines. "There was airline representation on the airport security task force," Deeks says, "and those three issues were suspiciously absent" from the task force's 16 recommendations. The task force even picked up Reagan National's new rule that one piece of carry-on luggage plus one personal item doesn't constitute two items.

The flight attendants' union is anticipating opposition from the airline industry to its call for just one carry-on per person, though ATA spokesman Wascom says that his organization has no official position on the matter. But some in the industry note that Continental Airlines, already hurting and laying off personnel by the thousands, had retrofitted many of its planes to allow even more overhead compartment space in preparation for a commercial push selling passengers on the idea of quick 'n' easy commuting free of the hassles of turnstiles.

Those days are long gone. Some flight attendants express even the fear that wine bottles for first class passengers could easily be turned into weapons. Will airlines, hoping to woo high-class travelers, be willing to switch to wine-in-a-box?

One way or another, Deeks says that the Transportation Department's airport security task force is being shortsighted, focusing entirely on measures that could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks only. "They're thinking that if they close the sorts of loopholes used on Sept. 11 they don't have to close the rest of them," Deeks says. "Unfortunately we know that isn't true. If we leave any opening for terrorists, that's where they're going to strike."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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