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Airline Responsibility for the World Trade Center Deaths

United States airlines have better security overseas than they do at home, despite the fact that U.S. domestic flights are equally vulnerable to hijackings.

Airlines are not prevented by FAA regulations from providing European levels of security in the U.S., but airlines routinely claim that compliance with FAA regulations is all they are obligated to do. As a matter of law, FAA regulations are minimums and looking to the FAA for leadership is an oxymoron. Historically the FAA has never been proactive and routinely issues safety rules after a disaster hits, not before.

For example, today's requirement that all aircraft flying above 18,000 feet must adhere to Instrument Flight Rules, and fly strictly prescribed routes, resulted from the crash of two airliners over the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956 in which 128 were killed when a United Airlines DC-7 and a TWA Constellation collided.

On December 16, 1960, a United Airlines DC-8 and a TWA Constellation collided over Staten Island killing 134. After the crash, the FAA reduced aircraft speeds near airports and ordered mandatory radar on airliners.

On September 25, 1978, a Pacific Southwest Airways Boeing 727 collided with a single engine Cessna 172 over San Diego killing 144, while both aircraft were under FAA radar control and operating with prescribed clearances. The crash accelerated the FAA's airspace control efforts, but there were still major holes in the system.

On August 31, 1986 in the Cerritos tragedy, a Piper Archer without an FAA clearance crossed the path of an Aeromexico DC-9 jet within the Los Angeles Terminal Control Area, killing 82. After the crash FAA traffic rule enforcement stiffened.

The December 7, 1987 crash of PSA flight 1771 over Paso Robles resulted in the FAA requiring all persons to pass through metal detectors, including crew members, before accessing aircraft gateways. That was after a deranged PSA employee smuggled a gun onto the plane, shot the crew and put the plane into a power dive that killed 42.

In the PSA crash, I represented two families for the death of a father and a mother who were murdered on this flight. The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of that crash noted the absence of bullet proof doors to the cockpit, unlike many foreign carriers, but the FAA did nothing to mandate this higher level of security, despite the fact that the only identification necessary to board a U.S. plane is a driver's license and a credit card. Once again the FAA proved it was more responsive to airline profits than it was to the public's need for security.

After the Paso Robles flight was destroyed by a solitary handgun, no American air carrier increased its security, other than to ask meaningless questions everyone has been asked for years about who packed your bags and have they remained in your possession.

The very fact that everyone on American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 was asked those questions, by definition, means there was a threat, a threat that both airlines failed to protect against.

After the 1996 loss of the TWA flight over Lockerbie, Scotland the FAA focused attention on screening luggage. Three years later, in 1999, the FAA first proposed a new rule requiring luggage screeners to pass 40 hours of training. The United States General Accounting Office investigating the snail pace of FAA safety studies concluded that the FAA has taken more than ten years to adopt six safety rules and that an additional 23 rules demanded by Congress ten years ago have not yet been addressed. This dismal record of incompetence is well known to every airline and for that reason the industry has successfully avoided implementation of common sense rules followed outside the U.S.

The quality of aircraft security personnel has long needed upgrading as well. Security for flights in the U.S. is provided by airline contractors who employ minimum wage workers, with high turnover rates. European screeners in a recent test by the FAA proved they were able to detect more than twice as many test objects as U.S. security guards. Understandably, European screeners were not plagued by job turnover, were more experienced and received higher pay.

During the past year I have made four business trips on United from San Francisco to Paris. On each return from Charles de Gaulle, there has been a thorough grilling by security personnel before checking in at the United counter, detailed inquiries about why you were visiting France, where did you go, and questions about specific places, people, restaurants, sights, roads, and hotels, etc. All the time security personnel maintain direct eye contact.

And, that is just the beginning. A high percentage of carry on bags are tested for chemical contaminants at the security x-ray stations and there is always a second passport check after entering the jetway, where passports again are closely scrutinized, boarding passes compared and another volley of specific questions must be answered.

For decades El Al, the Israeli flag carrier, has operated a target airline in hostile jurisdictions, but has not suffered a hijacking, because it wrote the book on airline security. Thorough passenger interviews, complete luggage inspections and air marshals on board flights are central to its success.

The time for all airliners to have locked, bullet proof cockpit doors is long overdue. The cost is minimal and there is no reason not to do so. The claim that a locked cockpit hatch would be a safety hazard for pilots in a crash ignores the fact that outside of the U.S. doors to the flight deck routinely are locked. As a pilot I know that in a crash pilots are lost because they ride up front and after the crash the crew door is routinely blocked by passengers and seats that rip loose and are hurled forward. Planes can be reconfigured by moving the cockpit door rearward and giving the flight crew exclusive access to the forward toilet. That would prevent mid-flight cockpit door openings.

Combine bullet proof doors with a plan of sky marshals, such as used in the U.S. to stop waves of hijackings to Cuba in the 1970s, and hijackers would have no chance. Instead of allowing airlines to pinch pennies in hiring security contractors, a professional law enforcement safety agency should be given the job. The United States Coast Guard already has the responsibility for protecting the nation's water ports and the safety of water travel. This professional agency is the most likely to successfully transition to providing security for the nation's airports and professional air marshals on our planes as well.

Lastly, all airlines should prohibit anyone flying without a valid U.S. passport or its equivalent. A positive identification system, tied to law enforcement computers, should not be hard to implement with our scanning and computer technology, and the impact on privacy would be minimal. The U.S. already has a national identification card system cross-indexed with drivers' licenses and Department of Justice computers, with no discernible violation of civil rights. Going one step further and having a national identity card system recognizes the reality of the present system and also mandates supervision of a public program, as opposed to a covert one.

Everyone in the World Trade Center would be alive today if security procedures followed by American airlines overseas had been followed in Boston, especially after repeated State Department warnings and a national commission which reported last year the seriousness of the terrorist threat.

Without doubt, the attack on the World Trade Center never would have happened if El Al's security procedures had been followed.

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