|At Issue: Already Reducing Airport Security?|
The Issue: Less than a year after terrorist hijackers turned four airliners into guided bombs, U.S. transportation safety officials are reducing some post 9-11 airport security measures. Is this a good move that will help the U.S. travel industry recover from its massive economic losses or does it set a dangerous precedent that could lead to more tragic attacks like those against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?
Background: Reduced Security Measures
- Carry-on foods and drinks: On August 23, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced it would alter its passenger screening policy by allowing passengers to carry paper or foam plastic cups through metal detectors at the security screening checkpoints of all U.S. airports.
"In an effort to make the security process more efficient and convenient for passengers, we have directed our screeners to allow passengers to carry their coffee, juice or other beverage, if it is in a paper or foam polystyrene container, through the walk-through metal detector," stated acting Under Secretary of Transportation for Security Adm. James M. Loy.
TSA says the new policy does not compromise security, because metal detectors can detect objects inside paper or foam cups. Plastic, glass, metal or ceramic containers, however, will have to be sealed because they must pass through an X-ray machine to be screened.
In another policy change related to carry-on foods and beverages, screeners will no longer be allowed to require passengers to consume carry-on food or drinks in order to prove they pose no danger to other passengers. This change came after security screeners at New York's JFK International Airport drew heavy criticism for forcing a woman passenger to drink from bottles of her own breast milk.
"With this policy, we are making it crystal clear that the public should not be asked, nor agree to, drink any liquid or eat any food for security clearance purposes," said Adm. Loy.
- Baggage security: TSA officials are also considering eliminating those two well-known questions passengers have been asked during check-in for the last 16 years: "Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry an item on this flight?" and "Have any of the items you are traveling with been out of your immediate control since the time you packed them?"
New TSA chief Adm. James M. Loy stated that no hard evidence existed showing the questions had ever prevented either an attempted or actual hijacking or bombing.
What supporters say: If the airlines are to recover from the massive economic setback they suffered as a result of the attacks, an effort must be made to better balance customer service and security. If a given security measure is found to prevent potential customers from flying without providing a meaningful deterrent to terrorism, that measure should be relaxed or eliminated.
"TSA has discussed numerous policy issues with members of the aviation community. The post 9/11 security environment makes such interaction mandatory if we are to provide optimal security for the traveling public," said TSA chief Loy.
The Air Transport Association representatives of the major airlines, added its support to dropping the baggage questions.
"All passengers do not pose equal security threats," said association spokesman Michael Wascom. "Why should we continue to ask these simple questions of everyone? We should be focusing on people who are higher security risks."
What opponents say: While these changes may be minor, they could lead to the easing of more critical security measures in name of customer service.
According to former Federal Aviation Administration security director Billie Vincent, the two baggage questions to be dropped were originally part of six questions developed by Israel's El Al Airlines in 1986. The six simple questions were designed to be asked only by expert interrogators trained to look for signs of hesitation or uneasiness on the part of passengers.
"What was started as very meaningful became essentially irrelevant," Vincent said. "In the United States, the questions were reduced to two and people were never trained to interrogate passengers properly."
"El Al still asks those questions, but it's still part of a larger process where they're interrogating passengers, which is what we need to do in this country," added Vincent.
Perhaps even more importantly, any reduction of air travel security less than a year after hijackers so easily took control of four in-flight aircraft could be seen by terrorists as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.