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A background check on Bush's plan for safer skies

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With airlines running at less than 50% of capacity since Sept. 11, President Bush tried last week to get the nation airborne again. At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, he implored the public to "do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots." Some of Bush's Cabinet secretaries--and even his dad--strapped themselves into commercial planes to "prove" that air travel is safe.

Travelers will need time to test their wings, as well as evidence of real changes in airport security. To that end, Bush announced a series of new federal initiatives. He vowed to make "our airline security stronger and more reliable." Here's a look at the President's plan--and some other high-tech security measures currently available:


Bush wants the Federal Government to supervise passenger and luggage screening--not by staffing those jobs with thousands of newly hired civil servants, but by contracting out to private firms. That's what the airlines do today, but here's the difference: instead of going for the lowest bid and thus settling for minimally trained minimum-wage workers, the government would set employment and national-security standards for airports; it would conduct background checks and purchase and maintain all security equipment. Bush also wants to deploy 4,000 National Guard troops to monitor airports, possibly for months.

Bush's plan seeks to repair what nearly everyone recognizes as a shoddy operation. But is he making a mistake by not federalizing the airport-security force? The airline industry--and some members of Congress--would dearly love for him to do so. In last week's TIME/CNN poll, 77% of respondents favored federal control of airport security, and 63% wanted to put the Army or National Guard in charge of it.

A new federal work force in the airports wouldn't sit right with conservatives, who see it as a Big Government solution. But the real problem is that the work is mind numbing--few people with big law-enforcement ambitions want to make suitcase patrol their beat. "We tried that about 25 years ago," says a security veteran at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the New York City-area airports. "The guys get incredibly bored. That's not why they joined the force." But in Europe, some private companies, under tight government control, have proved they can make the jobs attractive, well paying and effective. Can we pull it off here?


Bush's new idea for in-flight security is a very old idea: have federal marshals ride shotgun on the airliners, much as they did in the days of the stagecoach. There are now perhaps three dozen marshals to cover 30,000 daily flights. Finding and training marshals, as Bush proposes, will take months. Still, the idea of armed plainclothes marshals will serve as a deterrent.

Improving cockpit security is perhaps the quickest way to prevent another catastrophe, and Bush wants to spend $500 million to harden cockpit doors and rewire emergency transponders so they can't be turned off. "We all know where Home Depot is," says American Airlines CEO Donald Carty. "We can go right down there today and buy a bolt to secure that door." In the weeks before Sept. 11, the FAA contemplated the use of lockable steel doors for U.S. carriers, similar to those used by Israel's El Al airline. Boeing manufactures the El Al doors and could start making domestic versions within weeks. Airbus already makes an improved door for Swissair.

The President also floated the idea of using remote-control gear to call back hijacked airplanes. But the pilots' unions have flatly rejected any attempt to take away control of aircraft.


As Bush was speaking from the guarded military end of O'Hare, transport authorities nationwide were redrawing their own airport-security plans to include everything from biometric technology (which uses unique human features for identification) to police-intelligence systems, such as psychological profiling. Airports are trying to tie these various strings of technology together to form a tighter net against evildoers. Face-print technology works by instantaneously matching the faces of people passing a camera against a database of the faces of known terrorists; when a match occurs, it calls the cops. The technology is infinitely expandable. "It's as simple as putting cameras out there," says Joseph Atick, CEO of Visionics of Jersey City, N.J., a face-print company that has proposed what it calls a Biometric Network Platform--millions of Web-connected cameras in public places across the country, constantly trolling for criminals.

Other biometric systems are being used to identify the good guys. EyeTicket Corp. of McLean, Va., recently introduced EyePass, a system that uses iris scans to verify identity. At the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, EyePass is used to admit flight crews and airport employees to secure areas. London's Heathrow Airport will begin using the EyePass system for passengers in late October. And in a program introduced last year, nearly 100,000 U.S. citizens have signed up so far to have their fingerprints and hand geometry digitized to breeze them through immigration controls at seven U.S. airports.

None of these technologies by itself can repulse terrorists. But each is a barrier that makes their tasks more complex, and as is now clear, we need all the complexity we can muster.


Cover Date: October 8, 2001


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