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Attacks force fresh look at airplane security

From John Vause

NEW YORK (CNN) -- In so many ways, it was such a simple plan: hijack an airliner and crash it into a building.

The organization and the planning took years, authorities say, and the culprits may have had help from a number of governments. But the plan itself was simple.

Nineteen men, armed with plastic scissors, cardboard cutters and a burning hatred of the United States, somehow avoided airport security, somehow took control of those commercial jets, and turned them into weapons of mass destruction.

And just like the emergency crews searching through the piles of rubble, authorities, too, are searching for ways to ensure it never happens again. But there may be limits to what they can do.

"If we're going to fly them, put passengers in them, luggage, freight, parcels, then we're going to make hundreds of compromises with security. It's only a question of how many compromises," said Brian Jenkins, who four years ago worked on a White House Committee for Airline Safety.

Tightened security

Days after the attack, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered increased security, including no more curbside check-in, vehicles at airport parking lots subject to search, and more thorough inspections at x-ray machines and metal detectors.

Security companies have received a rush of inquiries for new high-tech, x-ray scanners.

One, already used by federal prisons and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, can detect what the metal detectors cannot. In one case, it reveals a plastic knife that has been taped to a person's clothing.

At a deserted LaGuardia Airport in New York, the Schragis family was returning home after a flight to Boston. Security, they say, was tight. Sixteen-year-old wasn't allowed to take her knitting needles on board.

In Los Angeles, airport police confiscated more than 5,000 illegal items in one day, including cardboard cutters. And at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, where two of the hijacked flights originated, there were stunning admissions from those who work there that security is still lacking.

"The presence of security, state police, armed marshals and state police and bomb dogs is incredible, but I believe it's a false sense of security. If somebody wants to bring down an aircraft, they can. Nothing has changed that," said a worker, who did not want to be identified.

Workers say there's still easy access to the runways and the planes.

Hijacking response changing

Before the attack, when a plane was hijacked there was a familiar drill.

"Get the plane on the ground. Let the authorities deal with the hijackers. As in a mugging, the thing you don't want to do is grab the pistol out of the mugger's hand. Give the mugger your wallet. In a hijacking the proper thing to do is sit tight and not challenge the hijackers," Jenkins said.

But not now. With hijackers turning planes into guided missiles, the stakes are so much higher.

Capt. Steve Luckey of the Air Line Pilots Association says passengers must take more responsibility. At 30,000 feet, he says they're one of the last lines of defense.

"The fact of the matter is the current U.S. aviation security system doesn't adequately address the suicide threat. I don't think anything in place now could address that threat," he said.

Until now, pilots have opposed action by passengers, but they point to Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

Todd Beamer used an onboard phone to call the FBI. At the end of the call, the operator overheard him say, "Let's roll." Tom Burnett called his wife and told her the passengers were getting ready to do something.

Also on the front line are the flight attendants.

"The people who got on that plane last week were not interested in negotiating anything, and our training does not prepare us, gives us no idea of how to respond in that situation, said Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Never before has there been such a widespread review of safety. Everything is on the table, including armor-plated cockpits, federal background checks on passengers, planes that can be landed remotely by air controllers.

The changes will be felt by every air traveler around the world. In the past, authorities say, one of their biggest problems has been complacency. But before, there was never this realization of a clear and present danger.

• Federal Aviation Administration
• Association of Flight Attendants
• Air Line Pilots Association

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