Just how does a plane become a guided missile? The answer, in part, is that the air-security system in the U.S. is porous in so many ways that a breach was not surprising--only the incomprehensible dimension of it. For aviation experts, who are all too familiar with the gaping holes in the nation's vast network of 100 large airports, there was a sad, easy explanation for Sept. 11: you get what you pay for.
For years, countless critics, from government watchdogs and consumer groups to industry officials, have railed against and exposed the nation's lax, inadequate airline-safety net, one they say has broken down in every aspect: policy, personnel, technology and oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress. After years of foot dragging, only recently has the FAA started to put stronger rules into effect, requiring more stringent employee background checks and training as well as mandating that all checked baggage be scanned by sophisticated bomb-screening devices--by 2014. Two weeks before the tragedy, a veteran pilot told TIME: "It's absurd to think we're safe."
Few of the nation's 670 million annual passengers would be that foolish any longer. On the contrary, the challenge now will be to convince flyers that the skies won't be dangerous. After a two-day shutdown, American air space reopened tentatively last Thursday, under a list of strict new rules that many experts have been demanding for more than a decade: banning curbside check-in or parking, forbidding family and friends to accompany passengers to the gate, having security personnel check all planes before passengers board, conducting random searches of flight crews and equipment, and prohibiting the transport of cargo or mail on passenger jets.
Most notably, in light of the primitive weapons used by the hijackers, passengers will be prohibited from carrying on any kind of knives or cutting devices--metal or plastic, utility, razor blades or box cutters, no matter how small--a ban already in place in countries such as Japan and Pakistan.
The FAA is contemplating increasing the use of armed, undercover air marshals on domestic flights, an action that nearly 80% of Americans support, according to a TIME/CNN poll conducted last week. Now fewer than 100 federal air marshals randomly travel on a very select number of domestic and international routes, down from a peak of more than 1,000 in the early 1970s, before concerns about airborne shoot-outs effectively sank the program. Some pilots are suggesting that an even better deterrent would be to have a uniformed security officer in the jump seat next to the cockpit.
By the end of the week, Americans were learning that "inconvenience is the price to pay for security," as Alan Taylor, a field engineer for an elevator company, said at Los Angeles airport on Friday. With bomb-sniffing dogs roaming the terminals, airline personnel asking pointed questions and armed guards holding machine guns, taking off will invariably take a lot longer. "If they don't open this bag and probe it, I'll be worried," said a traveler, Paul Pereda, an electrician from Woodbridge, Va.