Air Security Strays Off Course

Airline passengers have learned to put up with a lot since 9/11. Long lines, shoe checks and invasive pat-downs. Now, President Bush wants to more than double the $2.50 security fee they pay on each leg of a trip. Travelers have generally met these post-9/11 imperatives with minimal complaint and maximum maturity.

Too bad airport security hasn't matured along with them. Federal authorities seem stuck in a time warp, wrestling with the same problems that confronted them in those terrifying days after 9/11.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), created weeks after the attack to invent a vast new federal security system, can be excused for a bumpy start. But now, more than three years later, there's no excuse for its failure to prioritize the threats it faces, set clear goals and measure its progress toward them.

Some key members of Congress are stuck in the past, too. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who chairs the House aviation subcommittee, seeks to return to a variation on the system that failed before 9/11. Mica wants airports to use private security companies supervised by the government. The private workers would supplant 45,000 screeners who now work directly for the government.

This week, the White House voiced some support for the idea. In its budget plan, the administration said it will work to "expand airport contract-screening opportunities."

Congress got rid of private screeners in 2001 — with good reason. The private system was revealed by 9/11 and daily experience to be a sieve, characterized by screeners' low pay, low morale and high turnover.

Returning a law-enforcement function to private companies with profit motives is an ideologically driven idea short on common sense. Would the FBI contract out for agents?

Since last November, airports have had an opportunity to opt for Mica's system and only one — tiny Elko airport in Nevada — has done so. Directors of some major airports say they are satisfied with federal screeners and see no incentive to switch.

As a debate swirls over this old issue, it saps energy from more pressing problems:

•Unsophisticated screening. Screeners check millions of travelers a year who pose no threat. Attempts to create a computer program to classify travelers by risk have stalled over legitimate privacy concerns. Yet, in its new budget, the White House would move responsibility for the computer program from TSA to a new office, risking more wasted time as officials get up to speed.

•Unresponsive bureaucracy. Airport directors complain about the TSA's creaky bureaucracy, which fails to respond to problems unique to each airport, such as matching the screening force to peaks and valleys in passenger loads. Yet the new budget would keep an arbitrary cap on the number of screeners at 45,000.

•Unaddressed threats. Fortified cockpit doors, along with vigilant passengers, make 9/11-style hijackings far less likely. While much energy and money is focused on preventing a repeat of 9/11, other threats are unaddressed. Cargo loaded on passenger planes is largely unscreened. Airport perimeters remain porous. Private planes remain vulnerable to intruders.

The government needs to look forward. Returning to private screeners would take security in the wrong direction.

Better to use the money from the ticket tax to improve management of the current workers and ensure they look at real threats, not kids, grandmothers and frequent fliers who pose minimal risk.

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