Tougher Airline Security? Not Yet

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A traveler pets a bomb sniffing dog at Ronald Reagan National Airport in D.C.

Richard Reid's particular gift to America is that now airport security looks like a Japanese restaurant. Passengers nationwide are removing their shoes for inspection, the legacy of Reid's failed attempt to blow up an American Airlines plane with C4 plastic explosive hidden in the heel of his shoe. It's led to even longer lines at the gate during the holiday travel season. But for all the added hassle, we're still not witnessing the full implementation of those stricter new airlines security measures promised after the Sept. 11 attacks. It may be a long wait.

We've got some baggage

Where are those 28,000 federal baggage screeners we were promised in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act? They aren't actually required to be on the job (fully vetted by federal employment standards) until November 2002. Until then, private firms maintain control of security hiring. And how about the air marshals we keep hearing so much about? Again, we're asked to be patient: the presence of an air marshal on every flight, as per Congressional action, won't happen for months, perhaps even a year. In the meantime, we're assured, there are marshals sprinkled on both long- and short-haul flights.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Then there's the bag check issue. According to the ATSA every bag will be subject to some type of security check by January 18th, 2002. That's an optimistic assessment. Experts predict that while more bags certainly will be screened in the New Year, it's not clear exactly when we can expect all bags to be funneled through high-resolution x-ray machines before being loaded into a cargo hold.

How long will it take? Some numbers: There are currently 153 of said machines at 50 airports — and 2,000 are needed to cover all 430 U.S. airports that handle commercial air traffic. There is some wiggle room: the airlines are permitted to fulfill their bag-check requirement another way: by instituting bag-matching rules, which keeps unaccompanied (and potentially dangerous) bags off planes.

Will the airlines be on time?

It sounds daunting, but the new undersecretary for transportation security isn't fazed. "We must meet our deadlines and will make every effort to meet them," John Magaw told the Senate Commerce Committee last Thursday. In his new post, Magaw, formerly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, takes on an unenviable task: Squaring actual airline security procedures with measures and deadlines set forth by Congress. And while Magaw and others in the Department of Transportation insist those deadlines are well in hand, some reports last week had airline lobbyists urging Congress to push the deadline back 30 days; lobbyists deny any such effort.

Meanwhile, the security improvements that DOT has managed to put in place primarily affect private airports and planes — not exactly part of the average traveler's itinerary.

Nonetheless, Magaw and others insist, deadlines will be met — or at the very least, attempts to meet them will be loud and highly publicized.