Retired General: Aviation Security Battle Off to Rough Start

The effort to improve aviation security in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks is off to a rough start, says a retired Air Force general who served on the commission that investigated the 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800.

J. Michael Loh spoke Monday at a meeting of U.S. airport commissioners, security experts and policy makers.

Participants, concerned about the impact that terrorism is having on air travel as a driving force in the nation's economy, were to draft recommendations Tuesday on responding to the problems that have arisen since Sept. 11.

"We don't get back to business as usual or business as normal until this industry gets back on its feet," said Daniel Ochse of Leigh Fisher Associates, a San Francisco-based airport management consulting company.

Ochse, a panelist at a session on the financial effects of the changes in air travel, said that while some aspects of the industry will never be the same, its long-term outlook is good.

"This industry will get back on track," he said.

Much of the discussion centered on how airports of all sizes can pay for stronger security in a time of lower passenger volume and how to restore public confidence enough to get people flying again.

Loh, in his luncheon remarks, outlined what he said must be done to make the skies secure.

"We have thrown together a few Band-Aids and a lot of knee-jerk steps in reaction to Sept. 11, instead of a methodical, deliberate security campaign like we have on the military side," said Loh, who before his 1995 retirement headed the Virginia-based Air Combat Command with 3,400 aircraft at 45 bases.

"Putting marshals on airliners, arming pilots with guns, adding National Guard troops and bomb-sniffing dogs in airports, and taking away scissors and tweezers from passengers may make us all feel a little bit more secure, but it doesn't address the root causes and won't go very far in preventing other terrorist acts in aviation," Loh said.

Loh said he did extensive study of aviation security during the investigation of the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off New York's Long Island, in which a terrorist bomb was initially suspected.

And he said half the 31 recommendations in the commission's final report dealt with aviation security, "nearly all of which have not been put in practice."

"They are equally valid in light of Sept. 11 as they were in 1997," Loh said.

The retired general said every airport needs an integrated security team headed by the airport director or commissioners and including every agency with a role in airport security, from the FBI to the Federal Aviation Administration to local police to the airlines -- all freely sharing information with each other.

"Make your first fight for real-time threat information from the FBI and other sources, and don't take no for an answer," he said.

Loh called also for a rigorous and thorough profiling system to identify prospective terrorists.

"You will have to fight off the extreme civil libertarians who claim that profiling discriminates," he said. "But the profiling system I envision respects religious, ethnic and national origins but provides warning signals when anomalies occur."

Finally, Loh said airports must create a culture in which "everyone is security conscious all the time, security becomes habitual and instinctive and everyone expects to be challenged frequently about who they are and what they are doing."

An aviation security bill that has unanimously cleared the U.S. Senate would make all airline baggage screeners federal employees.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said he opposed that provision of the bill and prefers a proposal by House Republicans to put the government in charge of overseeing, but not employing, airport security workers.

"I like having a dual system where the screeners know that somebody fron the federal government is looking over their shoulders," Bond said.