Why aren't airports secure?

A thousand horrible questions present themselves, but one is how, as appears to have happened, four teams of terrorists could have hijacked four airliners simultaneously. How did they get their weapons through security? How did they take over aircraft so rapidly that, apparently, no distress calls were sent by pilots?

This article was written within hours of the attack and, therefore, the possible answers it offers are highly speculative. But one leaps immediately to mind: America's airport security is shockingly lax.

Go through a security check at most European airports, and well-trained personnel will inspect your belongings carefully--asking you to open things, to start laptops to show that they really are laptops, and so on. Once, in France, I was asked to turn on my sniper-bullet-shaped pocket flashlight to demonstrate that it really was a flashlight. Within sight of security checkpoints in most European airports are police with assault rifles, wearing armor vests. Pass through security at most American airports, in contrast, and you will be inspected by phlegmatic, minimum wage workers, often recently arrived immigrants with low job motivation and a limited grasp of English. There's a premium on keeping the long lines moving; most inspections are cursory. Rarely are police or armed security guards on hand. If something is amiss, the overworked immigrants at the metal-detectors are supposed to use walkie-talkies to summon aid.

And even these meager security precautions may not apply if you dress like a policeman or as a member of the flight crew. In 1979 columnist Roger Simon of the Chicago Sun-Times memorably put on a blue suit and a pair of child's plastic airline captain wings, clipped his driver's license to his suit pocket as if it were an ID badge, and waltzed past security at O'Hare International Airport without being searched. Other reporters have done the same, as have congressional investigators. A thief named Edward Forrest Ingram has in recent years repeatedly walked unchallenged through security at Los Angeles International Airport, dressed in a phony pilot's uniform and flashing fake pilot ID badges.

Airline maintenance workers also receive minimal scrutiny. In December 1987 in California, a recently fired airline employee put a gun into his pocket; walked through security without passing through the metal detector, after flashing his airline ID badge; then boarded a plane and murdered the pilots in flight, causing a crash that killed him and 42 others. After that, the Federal Aviation Administration said airline personnel must go through metal detectors like everyone else, but the rule is not well-enforced. Regulations about direct access to planes from the runway are also lax--in most airports, ground personnel must now swipe a valid ID card over a card reader each time they enter the runway areas but may not be searched for weapons as they enter; once on the tarmac, they are essentially unsupervised. If an airport ground worker were in league with, or recruited by, terrorists, he or she might be able to get them onto the runway with relative ease.

In 1999 inspectors from the Department of Transportation found they could wander unchallenged into many supposedly secure airport areas, drive unchallenged onto the tarmac, or get onto the field by "piggybacking"--waiting for a worker to open a secure door and then slipping along through. DOT agents without any visible ID passed by 229 airport agents during the investigation and were challenged only 53 times. "In a high percentage of tests involving airport access controls, our successful penetration of secure areas almost always resulted in our boarding an aircraft," Alexis Stefani, a DOT official, said at the time.

Or a terrorist might pose as a law enforcement agent. Last year inspectors from the General Accounting Office found they could pass through security at Reagan National Airport and at Orlando International Airport by downloading phony police credentials from the Internet or by using movie-prop police badges. Flashing these, they carried aboard aircraft briefcases that were not x-rayed. Agents assigned to test Reagan National even found that, by using their phony identification, they could obtain official permits to carry firearms through the airport's checkpoints. Perhaps the House Judiciary Committee, which asked for this investigation, was wrong to publicize it, as the details may have given someone an idea. But the study found that gaining access through airport security areas was distressingly easy.

Various studies and commissions, including one chaired by Vice President Al Gore in 1996, have recommended better airport security, especially stricter standards for the contract firms (not police agencies) that staff the minimum-wage x-ray checkpoints. But improvements have been slow at best; an air of complacency has prevailed, especially since, in the last decade, hijackings and airline bombings have seemed to stop.

Much of the debate in the coming days will be about resolve on the international front, as it should. But there is something America must immediately do on the home front: completely revamp its airport security standards. This will mean more hassles and higher, European-style travel costs. But the penny-wise, pound-foolish nature of America's airport security is now clear. Much that has no price was lost this week. Lesser things need be lost too, among them the luxury of running to the airport at the last minute and scooting right on to your cheap flight.

This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.