Of course, terrorism has not played a role in recent, devastating air disasters; most were caused by mechanical or pilot error, not terrorism. This means, in many people's eyes, that even the airport equivalent of Alcatraz wouldn't have changed the fates of SwissAir 111, TWA 800 and, apparently, EgyptAir 990. "All of those crashes, and their apparent causes, were taken as a sign that we don't need to worry about airline terrorism," says Thompson. "And you hate to think it will take a total disaster, rooted in terrorism, to force security to tighten up. But sometimes it seems the government and, for that matter, the public is incapable of taking decisive action until they're hit between the eyes with a two-by-four." Until the government truly applies itself to the threat of terrorism, the public might be better served by a new strategy: rerouting the FAA's "security" budget toward the repair and upgrading of the planes we fly in every day.
These are grim days for white-knuckle airline passengers. Less than a month after the deadly plunge of EgyptAir 990 when anxious fliers might otherwise be getting their collective nerve back up, heading off to the airports for holiday travel another piece of ominous aviation news hits the headlines. And the threat is decidedly domestic: From December 1998 through April, a battery of Transportation Department investigators effortlessly infiltrated "security" zones at five major U.S. airports, often bypassing metal detectors and slipping into baggage handling areas. This is not exactly the face of air travel the FAA wanted to show a nation of passengers badly shaken by successive airline crashes, and the agency has pledged, once again, to improve the system. "In the wake of TWA 800, the so-called Gore Commission was invested with a lot of power to beef up airport security," says TIME Washington correspondent Mark Thompson. "The idea was to increase scrutiny of passengers and install expensive explosive-screening devices." More than three years later, the million-dollar devices may be there, but there seems to be a distinct dearth of scrutiny.