Airline Security: Stuck on the Runway?

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Passengers at LAX waiting to be re-screened

Phil Messina stood in the aisle of a makeshift airplane cabin set up in a hotel conference room and pulled items from a cardboard box. "I can kill you with a magazine, a soda can, a compact disk, a wine bottle, and a fork," he told an audience of airline pilots. Then Messina, a stocky former cop with a Fu Manchu mustache, began thrusting a 6-in. gold object into the air. "But this is the best!" he boasted. "I bought it yesterday at John F. Kennedy Airport." In his hand was a dagger-sized Statue of Liberty with a knife-sharp torch and crown.

Messina's demonstration was one of dozens at a security training session held last week in San Diego by the Airline Pilots Association, which represents 60,000 commercial aviators. TIME joined 100 pilots, airline officials and law enforcement agents as lecturers delivered the grim news: Flying is far less secure than the pilots hoped, Congress promised or the traveling public believes. Deadly weapons get onto planes every day. Baggage goes unchecked. "There are fundamental flaws in the government's approach to airline security," says former Northwest Airlines pilot Stephen Luckey, who heads ALPA's Security Committee. "They're worrying about nail clippers, and failing to treat the more significant threats."

More bad news reached the pilots from Washington, where last week Kenneth Mead, the Department of Transportation's Inspector General, delivered a scathing report to Congress on the Transportation Security Administration — the new agency tasked with protecting commercial aviation. Mead said the TSA would not acquire enough explosive detection machines to screen every bag by Dec. 31, as Congress has mandated. (A TSA spokesman says the agency intends to meet the deadline.) Mead predicted that because of its free-spending ways, the TSA would likely run out of money by next month.

He questioned why an agency on a tight budget would plan to rent 2,700 sq.-ft. offices (at an average of $85 per sq. ft.) for each of its 81 top airport security directors. The TSA says it expects Congress to approve a $4.4 billion supplemental budget request, and that it hasn't decided on offices. Mead's testimony only increased the pilots? sense of vulnerability. "Three thousand people died on Sept. 11 because eight pilots were killed," says Luckey. "Little has been done since then to provide effective protection."

Pilots and government officials say a program to put thousands of Federal Air Marshals on flights has been hobbled by insufficient training and poor-quality agents on loan from other agencies. During the Salt Lake City Olympics, for example, two temporary marshals boarded a high-risk flight in the western U.S. According to an airline security official, one of them grabbed a blanket, put his seat back and fell into a deep sleep with his weapon unprotected in a bag at his feet. His partner managed to stay awake, but left his seat to use the bathroom — without rousing his colleague or securing his own gun. A government source says there has never been a case of a permanent Air Marshal falling asleep on duty.

As the stories sank in, cocky airline pilots — many of whom have combat experience — seemed humbled by the challenge of dealing with terrorism. The class laughed when one presenter showed a cartoon of Richard Reid, the scraggly "shoe-bomber" who tried and failed to blow up an American Airlines flight from Europe last December. But the lecturer scolded them. "Reid was not a bumbling idiot. In fact, the sophistication of his operation should make you shiver."

Since 9/11, flight crews have often had to go through screening alongside passengers, and are even pulled aside for special searches. The pilots call it "gate-rape"; many claim that screeners target them because doing so is an easy way for them to meet their quota of random searches and because screeners know crews will be punished by their airlines if they complain.

Aware that the threat hasn't passed, pilots are pushing for the right to carry guns in the cockpit. On May 2, a House subcommittee will hold hearings on the question. ALPA and a grassroots organization called the Airline Pilots' Security Alliance have designed a program to screen and train pilots to use weapons aboard aircraft. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has come out against arming pilots; other opponents cite such concerns as pilot distraction, accidental discharge and theft. But the pilots say that if the government can't keep their aircraft safe and secure, they'll have to do it themselves.