Sunday, September 16, 2001

Airport laxity alleged

        One of the hottest topics following Tuesday's attacks has been airport and airline security.

        Mary Schiavo, the former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has been criticizing federal aviation officials for lax security for more than 10 years.

        She spoke Friday with Enquirer reporter James Pilcher.

        QUESTION: Now that it has been shown in graphic fashion that the nation's air security system needs improvement, what is the first thing that should be done?

        ANSWER: The first thing we should do, and I'm astonished we haven't done it, is to conduct full background checks on all airport and airline employees with access to secure areas. Right now, all we know is if they have a conviction or are a rapist. The new law that requires further criminal background checks and goes into effect (in September) beefs that up a little bit. But right now, we really don't know who has access to the planes or the cabins.

        And then we need to scrap the badge system.

        Q: Does the entire system need to be overhauled then?

        A: I would recommend a new federal agency that would oversee security at all airports. Right now, the way the system is geared, the lowest bidder gets the contract. And the lowest bidder means the lowest wages.

        And when people complain about delays, it's not the system that's causing it. It's the fact that there isn't enough staff and equipment.

        Q: Many flight crews — pilots and flight attendants — are balking at returning to work. Do you think they have a point?

        A: You would not believe the number of commercial airline pilots who have contacted me in the past two days, scared out of their minds. They want to know if they need new training, and if they do, why haven't they gotten it yet.They're protected by something the consistency of a bathroom door.

        They're scared, outraged, and many want to know if they could legally strap on a gun.

        Q: Now that we have a new model for hijackers to follow — using airliners themselves as weapons — what else needs to change?

        A: Well, someone right now has to address the issue as to whether we're willing to issue orders to shoot down a commercial airliner. Look back on the Payne Stewart disaster . They talked and talked about it, and finally the president got off the hook because it landed in an uninhabited area. It's a debate and decision that obviously we need to make.

        Q: Given that past recommendations haven't been taken, most notably after the Pan Am explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, do you think things will really change this time?

        A: There are already pressures on the FAA to return to normal, with people in the industry saying that the American public wants to get back to the way it was.

        While there are tremendous pressures from airlines and others not to fully implement the security measures that are needed, if we go back to normal, there will be more suffering and dying.


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