Attacks Betray Big Holes in Airport Security
Experts say traveling will never be the same again
TUESDAY, Sept. 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Even those who are familiar with airline security were left aghast at the lapses that allowed terrorists to wreak havoc on the United States today.
Four of America's own airliners were hijacked and turned into missiles against its own people in a catastrophic day that is being compared to the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. But unlike that infamous day, in which a military base was the primary target, today the terrorists attacked civilians and managed to cripple the government, the financial markets, and a large part of its transportation network simultaneously. And because of that, experts say, airport security will never be the same again.
"Today is certainly a monumental day with regard to aviation in the United States," said Reynold Hoover, an aviation security specialist who consults for the Air Line Pilots Association. Hoover, a Florida attorney who headed a terrorism force for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, predicts that the tragic events will trigger "sweeping changes."
"The aviation industry has been a target of the terrorist community," said Hoover. "This type of a scenario, where we've thought about aircraft crashing into a building -- that has been planned for in the past, we just never really gave it much credibility.
"The reality is that the aviation security community has known of the vulnerabilities in the aviation infrastructure, and has been working to try to improve it," he added. "Today is going to change how we in the United States fly, domestically and internationally."
That opinion was seconded by Richard Bloom, the director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. "You will see changes within airports," he said.
Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of the Houston-based consulting group Air Security International, Inc., said that the airlines could not have rehearsed for today's terrible events, in which American Airlines and United Airlines planes on commercial flights were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
"In all the different scenarios and the what-ifs that the FAA and the airlines do when we're preparing for disasters," LeBlanc said, "it's difficult to prepare for what occurred today: basically, the commandeering of a commercial jet aircraft to be used as a battering ram."
Some have speculated that the attacks occurred today to coincide with the anniversary of the 1978 Camp David peace accords. LeBlanc said that, to some extent, airport security officials do increase their vigilance on certain dates, such as the anniversary of the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
But he added that while it's difficult to know what mindset might have made those responsible choose Sept. 11 for the attacks, it is now a significant day in U.S. history.
He said that in the next few days, as air traffic inevitably picks up again, passengers will notice an increased law enforcement presence, parking restrictions and tighter security at checkpoints.
But he said that long-term implications would depend on findings of the investigations now under way into today's events.
"Traveling as we know it in the U.S., domestically, is going to change radically," LeBlanc added. "I think that's a positive [thing], so we don't repeat what occurred today and we don't see this kind of tragedy happen again."
A experienced pilot who flies regularly out of Logan International Airport in Boston, the departure point for two of the hijacked planes, said that security there is no better or worse than at other airports.
The pilot said security at American airports tends to rely too heavily on machines rather than humans. Whereas security officials at European airports tend to ask passengers questions, such as what they plan to do in the country, airports in the United States "have tended to go the technology way." X-ray equipment checks baggage for weapons, and "they're paying somebody $6 an hour to watch these machines," the pilot said. But the pilot suspects that the attack didn't happen through the passenger terminals.
The pilot noted that all the hijacked flights were domestic -- in-country flights have looser security than international ones -- and originated from major airports. Logan Airport caters to "a large international element," the pilot said, and because it's so busy, it's easier for people to escape detection if they wish.
The pilot also pointed out that each of the four hijacked planes were set for transcontinental flight, and thus had plenty of fuel to create the greatest impact possible.
The pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suspected that the pilots were killed before the planes were crashed. "I can't believe a crew member would drive a plane into the World Trade Center, even if you have a gun to your head," the pilot said. The pilot also believed that the pilots in the United Airlines plane that crashed in Pennsylvania thwarted yet another attack on a landmark.
Perhaps the hijackers were pilots themselves, the pilot added. However, the hijacked planes were commercial airliners with "heavily automated" equipment in the cockpit. The hijackers could have learned to steer the planes into their targets with training from flight simulators, some of which are available on the Internet, the pilot said.
The flier said the Federal Aviation Administration has had fairly lax security since the millenium scare. Travelers are impatient, the pilot said, adding, "People want to be secure but they don't want security."
The security is also uneven, the pilot said: "They'll give me, who's in uniform, a tremendously hard time, but a caterer can go all over the place."
Reporter Nicolle Charbonneau contributed to this article.
What To Do
Hoover stresses that despite the horrific nature of the day's events, people should try not to panic, and try to be more aware of their surroundings. He says that if you note anything unusual or out of place, you should report it to the proper authorities.
Alternatively, you can contact the Federal Aviation Administration.