False Promises of Airport Security

The U.S. Department of Transportation said last week that airlines at seven high-risk U.S. airports are not complying with security measures the Federal Aviation Administration ordered after the Sept. 11 hijackings.

So the industry that just received a $15 billion bailout from the federal government did not comply with that same government’s orders to enact certain safety procedures before it sent planes back into the sky. The airlines took taxpayer dollars to keep themselves in business, but can’t seem to take the necessary precautions to keep those taxpayers safe.

The money was not conditioned on increased security measures or earmarked to buff up safety. The industry’s losses following the Sept. 11 jetliner hijackings pushed several companies to the brink of bankruptcy, and the bail-out was intended to keep what Americans have come to rely upon as a national mass-transit system functioning.

Since then, the politicians and airline industry officials have been beseeching Americans to get back on the planes, appealing to our patriotic instincts to stare down terrorism by refusing to be scared from the skies or allow one of our major industries to be disabled. The promise implicit in those pleas was that the government and the carriers are working to make air travel as safe as possible.

Now it turns out that the airlines are failing dismally at holding up their end of this deal, and are getting away with it because the FAA didn’t enforce its own orders.

The DOT discovered what it called "rampant noncompliance" with an FAA order mandating the "continuous" screening of all baggage with sophisticated bomb scanners. The order was part of a broad package of measures — many of which were secret — that the FAA ordered be put in place before flights were allowed to resume.

Last week, DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead told Congress that "at most of the machines we observed no bags were searched." Security expert Peter Williamson told Congress, "The current screening process is much the same today as it was four weeks ago, offering a false sense of security to the flying public."

FAA Administer Jane Garvey blamed the lapses in part on the airlines’ possible misunderstanding of the word "continuous." Garvey said "continuous" may have been too "ambiguous" a term.

Now consider this: Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia accused the nation’s largest airport security company, Argenbright Holdings Ltd., of violating federal rules at 13 major airports. The company was fined $1.2 million last year for what the AG called an "astonishing pattern of crimes that potentially jeopardized public safety," including falsifying records, performing inadequate background checks, and hiring airport workers with disqualifying criminal records. The AG claims these infractions are still being committed.

Here’s a question: Why was Argenbright still running airport security at all?

Americans should feel betrayed by these findings. We shouldn’t have to fly with a "false sense of security," and should be appalled and outraged that we are. The findings call into question the ability of the airlines and the FAA to manage and enforce the complicated new security measures now being suggested.

Congress is now considering airport and airline security legislation that would, among other things, place armed air marshals on flights, allow pilots to carry guns and require that every bag being carried or checked onto an airplane be X-rayed. Americans overwhelmingly support these measures; most say they are willing to wait in long lines to make flying safer.

But arming personnel aboard flights and subjecting luggage to this level of scrutiny cannot be managed with the same haphazard incompetence with which security has been managed in the past. Passengers have the right to expect that the people responsible for executing these measures will be trained, qualified, top-caliber professionals. As long as security is left to an industry that can take our money but can’t take orders, that can’t understand the word "continuous," that can’t fire a contractor with a criminal record, the promise of safer skies will remain an empty one.

The debate over the bill centers on whether the employees searching our bags would be federal ones or private contractors. Clearly, from the track record exhibited so far, the airlines and their private contractors are not up to this job. But are we expected to believe that a new federal bureaucracy of civil service employees would improve accountability and efficiency?

We want armed pilots and air marshals; we want our bags screened and checked; and we can only imagine what the price tag is going to be for that. Is our next batch of billions going to truly buy us more secure skies? Exactly in whose hands do we want to leave the enforcement of that type of security?

Robin Wallace is the Views editor for Foxnews.com

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