By Travel & Leisure
February 01, 2011

The stakes have never been higher. Less than three weeks after the attacks of September 11, President George W. Bush stood at Chicago's O'Hare Airport detailing new aviation security measures and urging citizens to return to the skies. The same day, the media reported that the White House had authorized military officials to shoot down hijacked aircraft as a last resort. No wonder public confidence in aviation security remains shaky at best. Clearly, our system is at a crossroads. For decades, the United States chose not to adopt the armed-fortress, high-alert procedures of Israel, or the stringent standards in place in much of Europe. Instead, the government and the airline industry crafted a system that sought to address everything from the carriers' concern about the bottom line to Americans' desire for civil liberties and convenience. In the past, security was stepped up somewhat after major incidents, such as the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island; although federal investigators ultimately ruled out terrorism as the cause of that disaster, the Gore Commission's recommendations nonetheless prompted passenger profiling as well as wider use of high-tech scanners.

After September 11, the Bush administration's Rapid Response Team quickly issued reports on airport and aircraft security, and National Guardsmen were installed at airports around the country. But it will be months, if not years, before we see the full impact of new procedures and technology. Even matters on which nearly everyone agrees—such as taking responsibility for security away from the FAA and the airlines—are politically sensitive and may take some time to resolve. As this issue went to press, the Senate had passed a bill that put the Justice Department in charge of aviation security, while the White House was proposing a new agency within the Department of Transportation, and the House was preparing to debate the measure.

And even what has already changed is not always clear. In a classic catch-22, the government and the airlines are now engaged in a balancing act between sharing information to restore public confidence and tipping their hand to terrorists. Based on confirmed details available at press time, here's a look at our rapidly evolving aviation security system.

Improved security procedures can begin the moment a passenger makes a reservation. As Gerald Dillingham, director of civil-aviation issues at the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, observes, "If we wait until the bad guys are at the airport or on the plane, the fight is almost over." Dillingham says that the technology has been available for thorough screening of flight manifests, but before September 11, no one was seriously discussing making use of it.

The Bush administration's Rapid Response Team recommended what it calls "voluntary pre-screening." Although the FAA has been receiving daily intelligence reports, new screening could mean that reservation systems would interface directly with databases at federal law-enforcement agencies. "The general tenor of things is that intelligence needs to be shared," says Dillingham.

In addition to answering that familiar set of security questions at check-in, passengers need only show a conventional photo ID, such as a driver's license or passport—both of which allow passengers to misrepresent themselves fairly easily. The Bush administration's team has proposed switching to "smart ID's," but hasn't specified what they would be. Fingerprints, for example, might be added to ID's, which could then be scanned at the airport. Canada has announced that it will soon use fingerprint scanning at airports and U.S. border crossings. Some experts are also pressing airports to install facial recognition systems that would search airports for terrorist suspects. John Woodward, senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, notes that earlier concerns about privacy—there was an uproar when Tampa city officials suggested placing surveillance cameras at major tourist centers—seem to have waned. "People are reassessing the balance," he says.

Before September 11, many travelers were unaware that they were being profiled at check-in through the Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening system (CAPS), which uses software to determine risk profiles. While the FAA does not disclose the precise criteria, we do know that they differ for domestic and international flights and are supposedly based on travel patterns—not race, national origin, or religion.

When a passenger is "selected" as a security risk, his checked bags are scanned for explosives. If the airline has no high-tech scanners, the bags are held until the passenger has boarded, in what is known as Positive Passenger-Bag Match. One reason curbside check-in was prohibited after September 11 was that it allowed passengers to bypass CAPS. At press time, some airlines had reinstated limited curbside check-in "with added security measures," according to FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto; whether that's permanent will depend on intelligence information.

Has CAPS ever caught a would-be bomber?The FAA won't say, but profiling seems here to stay, despite criticism. The Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report in May stating that CAPS disproportionately selects Arab-Americans and Muslims. The FAA denies the claim. From a technical standpoint, a recent report from the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Science, praised CAPS but noted that passengers aren't rematched to bags if they change planes. (Overall, stopovers remain a weakness in the system; passengers who change planes do not pass through security again, so in theory they could introduce objects they weren't carrying on their first flight.) Also, CAPS does not apply to carry-ons: a selectee goes through the same checkpoint procedures as anyone else.

Before September 11, most checked bags were not scanned on domestic flights, and only some were scanned on international flights. In its aftermath, the FAA stepped up domestic scanning and ordered continuous use of sophisticated CTX machines—currently at 47 airports around the country—whose three-dimensional images are more likely than a standard X ray to reveal suspicious contents. (They also may damage film, so you should no longer pack any in checked bags.) As it turned out, according to a report issued on October 11 by Kenneth M. Mead, the Department of Transportation's inspector general, airlines at seven of the nation's busiest airports were not complying with the FAA's order. Some CTX machines were being used, but not continuously; Mead would not identify which airlines or airports were involved.

The FAA had planned to start screening all checked bags within the next decade. In contrast, the European Civil Aviation Community voted a few years ago to require its member nations to scan all checked bags by next year. The FAA's Takemoto says its deadline has now been moved up, but he won't disclose the new timetable.

At most airports, carry-on bags are run through X-ray machines that show a one-dimensional image; some bags are randomly searched by hand. Passengers also walk through metal detectors. The FAA has been testing more sophisticated scanners, both for bags and passengers, but so far none are in wide use at U.S. airports.

Gate screening has traditionally been performed by employees of private security firms contracted by the airlines. Much has been made of the meager training and low pay many screeners receive; what's more, they have not been subject to thorough criminal background checks. In December 2000, a new rule mandated such checks, but was only applied to new hires and proved to be of little use in scrutinizing the many foreign nationals who work as screeners, since the checks only cover U.S. crimes. This fall, the FAA began auditing all background checks on screeners at the nation's 20 largest airports, after federal prosecutors found that Argenbright Security, one of the nation's largest airport security firms, had hired convicted felons. At press time, the Senate had passed a measure to make screeners federal employees; the House was still debating it.

After passing through initial screening, select carry-ons are subjected to a chemical test in what's called a Trace Explosives Detection Device (TEDD). "It's a machine that sniffs," explains Thomas S. Hartwick, chairman of the National Research Council's Assessment of Technologies Deployed to Improve Aviation Security committee. The screener uses a cotton swab to swipe an item—often an electronic device, since a terrorist could hide an explosive in it—and places the swab in the TEDD.

According to the FAA, as of October 11 TEDD's were in use at 172 airports around the country. But in a recent report, Hartwick's committee concluded it was impossible to gauge the effectiveness of TEDD's, since they're not routinely tested. Might TEDD's one day be used to test for biochemical weapons?Hartwick says he can't comment specifically, and then adds, "What they can and cannot detect is an ever-changing target."

Airports operate with clearly delineated public and "secure" areas. The DOT inspector general revealed in December 1999 that undercover agents had gained access to secure areas at eight major U.S. airports 68 percent of the time, often by simply following airport personnel into those areas. The report made headlines and led to enforcement actions. In early 2000, DOT officials found tighter security, but were still able to enter secure areas 30 percent of the time.

Progress, but not a stellar performance. One way to improve it would be to require that every airport employee use a smart ID to enter restricted areas. This past spring the FAA asked Hartwick's committee to examine different technologies, including biometrics, a way of identifying people based on unique physical characteristics: facial composition, fingerprints, the iris. Biometric ID's are already being tested at some U.S. airports, including Chicago, Charlotte, and San Francisco.

After September 11, several airlines moved quickly to reinforce cockpit doors; doing so may become a federal requirement. Previously, it was thought that a locked cockpit door could impede rescue attempts in the event of a crash. In addition, more sky marshals began flying on an undisclosed number of flights.

In one of the more controversial proposals to emerge following September 11, the Air Line Pilots Association pressed to allow pilots to carry firearms. "The radical nature of these attacks caused radical rethinking," says John Mazor, a spokesman for the pilots' trade group. At press time, the Senate had approved this measure, but the House was still debating it.

The airlines are also looking for ways to prevent the transponder—the device that keeps pilots in contact with air-traffic controllers—from being cut off, as happened during the September 11 hijackings. Another proposal calls for video cameras to be installed so pilots can monitor passengers. And flight attendants are seeking permission to carry stun guns and to receive self-defense training.

A huge risk to aviation security is the cargo that is carried on most commercial flights. Cargo shipments are not routinely scanned; shippers need only vouch for the contents of boxes. Airlines are frequently slapped with FAA fines for transporting hazardous materials (presumably) unwittingly, so it's clear that cargo procedures are a gap in the system.

On October 16, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FAA may have begun screening most cargo after September 11. The FAA will not specify how much, or how little, cargo is being scanned. "We are under strict instructions not to comment," says Takemoto.

Every terrorist incident brings an avalanche of proposals, each one raising the issue of money. At the recommendation of the Gore Commission, the FAA has been footing the bill for much of the new security technology, and the airlines have been paying for staffing. For the current fiscal year, which started October 1, Congress approved $281 million for aviation security, up from $168 million in 1998. Senate measures passed at press time, including federalizing airport security staffers, would cost an estimated $2 billion. Consumers will certainly pay for at least some of these costs; the Senate called for a passenger surcharge of up to $2.50 per flight, and the airlines could well increase ticket prices.

Everyone agrees that there is no such thing as a perfect aviation security system. There are simply too many layers and shifting threats. In the month following the September 11 attacks, some familiar terms were used to describe the new security measures: Not enough. Window dressing. Inconsistent. Even the GAO's Dillingham, one of the more measured voices, concluded, "My general assessment is that [the first round of measures] can be characterized as necessary but not sufficient."

Perhaps what's driving the criticism is not entrenched cynicism or outright fear, but a plea for the kind of thorough infrastructure we've needed for years. Isn't travel too essential to curtail for want of an adequate safety net?"History has shown we have a short memory," says Dillingham. "But given the scope and nature of what happened on September eleventh, I am hopeful we are in a different world and things won't go back to business as usual."