Are our airports safer today than before 9/11?

Are our airports safer today than before 9/11?
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I remain amazed at the “experts” who continue to maintain that we are no safer today than prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001. While I agree that there are areas where we need to see improvement, we are considerably safer than prior to 9/11.

Prior to that horrible day, one of our main areas of concern was checked luggage. Specifically, no domestic checked luggage was searched in any way, even though public perception was otherwise.

The main concern was a suicide bomber could check in with a luggage full of explosives, board the plane and then the plane would be blown from the sky — resulting in a total loss of life of those on board in addition to casualties on the ground.

I was among those pleading with the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and airline security directors for an immediate change in this policy. We screened passengers before they boarded planes; checked luggage needed the same scrutiny. But time after time we were told that this was not a main area of concern and since the public perception concluded bags were screened, that was good enough.

The airlines balked at the idea, because it could potentially slow down the boarding process. Then the cost factor was raised and since that could lead to higher air fares, doing nothing became the standard operating procedure for decades…until 9/11.

Finally the decision was made to screen checked luggage and immediately the security for the 2.4 million passengers a day who traveled was improved. I applauded the decision and was relieved that it did not take the loss of a life to usher in a change of policy. Far too many times the recommendations following an aviation disaster are placed on the back burner, with the excuse of “too much money” being used to justify inaction. 

A further step forward in security took place as the full-body imaging scanners were distributed at airports around the country. For decades security at the airport relied on magnetometers. The unit would use a magnetic field to detect metal objects, but was absolutely worthless when it came to detecting plastic or liquids that might be strapped to a passenger’s body.

In 2004 two Russian planes were destroyed as passengers, strapped with explosives to their bodies, were able to board without being detected. They cleared the security checkpoints, which relied on the magnetometers, and nearly 100 lives were lost in the two incidents. It soon became clear to security personnel around the world that there had to be a way to detect explosives that were concealed under clothing.

Immediately airports began using the “swab test.” Passengers were selected at random and a specially designed cloth was used to swipe along a bag to see if there was any explosive trace residue. These tests were effective, but not 100 percent so since only a few of the passengers traveling a day were subjected to the test.

A few years later the phone-booth looking “puffer” machines were put into place, allowing more passengers to be screened at the airport checkpoints. The machines were not as reliable as hoped and had serious maintenance issues and at a cost of $165,000 a piece, we needed them to work as designed.

Eventually the full body imaging scanners were introduced and the machines were able to detect metal, plastic or liquid objects that might be strapped to a traveler’s body, providing a higher level of security than we had prior to the attacks of 9/11.

While we are seeing billions of dollars invested inside the airport, we need to see far more resources devoted to protecting the outside of the airport — mainly on the tarmac and airport grounds. We continue to see reports of individuals who have scaled the six-foot-high perimeter fence and strolled right onto the airport tarmac without being detected until the last moment. With thousands of airplanes parked at airports around the country, much more emphasis needs to be placed on keeping them secure as they remain overnight. 

After all, what is the use of incredible security inside the airport unless we also improve the security of the aircraft itself? An August 2018 incident in Seattle, where a plane was stolen and flown, should be ample warning to implement much-needed changes.

Any attack that disrupts the passage of cargo and passengers would result in a significant and adverse impact on our country’s economy — not to mention a possible loss of life. It is for these reasons everything within our power needs to be done to upgrade the security standards at airports around the country.

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Finally, airline employees need to be screened (as we do with passengers) at every airport prior to them having access to the sterile area of the tarmac. At present, only a few airports screen their employees and Atlanta only recently started doing so after it was discovered that airline employees had a gun smuggling ring operating between Atlanta and New York. We have 450 airports (commercially speaking) in the country and this area of security needs to be addressed immediately.

Yes, we are safer today than prior to 9/11. But much more needs to be done, and it is my hope we make the necessary changes while we still have the time.

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.