They were asking the same stupid questions on Sept. 11, when the hijackers boarded the planes: Did you pack your own bags? Did anyone give you anything to take on the plane? The answers were a uniform, "No," the very same ones the rest of us give. No. As in, "No, our nation's airline security system doesn't work."
But we knew that. We knew it in 1997 when the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security (the Gore Commission) said so, and advised that aviation security should be a national issue and funded accordingly, not left to the low-cost efforts of highly competitive airlines. "Everyone knew the system was broken," says Jim McKenna, former director of the Aviation Safety Alliance. "But no one or nothing could force a change. The combination of four aircraft hijacked and destroyed, with thousands killed, may be enough to force that change."
The changes are already under way, and you may have noticed some of them in that long, long wait to clear security on your last flight. For passengers: a ban on carrying any sharp instruments; government-issued identification needed to board; only ticketed travelers past security; and restricted parking near terminals. For the airlines: tightened cockpit access; a requirement that each aircraft be searched at least once a day; and increased screening procedures and technology at security checkpoints. As of Jan. 18, airlines will be required to inspect every bag on domestic flights for explosives, as they now do for foreign flights. (Even that scrutiny won't catch everything, as was shown Saturday when a man aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami, apparently with explosives in his shoes, was subdued by crew members and passengers after he tried to ignite the explosives with a match.)
The airlines actually tried to delay the implementation of the bag check, but they are no longer in charge of security, are they? That was perhaps the most critical realization--that a secure system can derive only from a national organization designed to do just that. "It didn't get the attention it is getting today, and probably wouldn't be getting the attention now if 9/11 didn't happen," said John Magaw, who has been nominated to run the new Transportation Security Administration.
The TSA is a branch of the Transportation Department and separate from the Federal Aviation Administration. It will assume all existing contracts between airlines and private security firms by mid-February. Within a year, the government will supplant the private screeners with newly trained federal workers, who must be U.S. citizens. (Many of the private screeners will qualify for federal jobs and will be retrained.) Magaw will also hire a security czar for each of the country's 429 major airports. "There was a lack of focus," he said. "There's no lack of focus now."
That focus includes the coordination of intelligence gathering, long considered a weak spot. Remember, two of the hijackers were on the CIA's watch list, but the information never got to the airlines. According to FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, the CIA and FBI and the FAA and airlines are now moving to share what they know--or at least they say they are.