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The Quest for Safer Skies

The Quest for Safer Skies

 The Quest for Safer Skies

JUST a few weeks before 9/11, Alex felt that he was about to conquer his fear of flying. As the passenger plane he was on took off on a flight from Athens to Boston, the 42-year-old public-affairs manager began to experience a mild panic attack​—his heart started palpitating and his palms and forehead became sweaty.

But he knew what he needed to do. The therapist who was trying to help him overcome his fear of flying had told him to take deep breaths, visualize pleasant scenery, and keep a firm grip on the armrest, releasing four times a minute. When turbulence and the frightening sounds were about to defeat him, Alex imagined that he was by a serene lake. “I thought I was making substantial progress,” Alex stated.

Millions of air passengers have had a fear of flying. In recent years many have turned to fear-of-flying schools for help, often persuaded by family members, employers, and airlines, who all had motives for getting them in the air. For most passengers, the classes were a boon; many clinics boasted success rates of up to 90 percent.

But 9/11 changed all of that. Alex immediately quit the class he was attending. And to the disappointment of his employer, he also scrapped plans to fly to meet a prospective high-profile client. “My fear of flying combined  with terrorist attacks,” said Alex, “was beyond my ability to handle. Therapy did not prepare me for that.”

Security Under Scrutiny

Nervous air travelers also point out that the routine questions asked of boarding passengers were posed to the hijackers on 9/11, such as: “Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry an item on this flight? Have any of the items you are traveling with been out of your control since the time you packed them?” The hijackers doubtless gave the answer most people give: “No!” Some security experts likewise see their successful boarding as evidence of lax air-travel safety. “No one or nothing could force a change,” said Jim McKenna, former director of the Aviation Safety Alliance. “The combination of four aircraft hijacked and destroyed, with thousands killed, may be enough to force that change.”

In the aftermath of those deadly crashes, the whole area of airport and aircraft security has come under intense scrutiny. At a congressional hearing, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Kenneth M. Mead, stated: “Despite existing and new security requirements there are still alarming lapses of security and some . . . vulnerabilities that need to be closed.” What is being done to close those gaps?

Screening Potential Security Threats

When a senior security officer with a major U.S. airline is asked if she is afraid to fly, she unhesitatingly answers: “No, I believe in CAPS.” She is referring to a system called Computer Assisted Passenger Screening, which registers each ticket sold by its subscriber airlines. The system indicates whether a ticket was purchased from an airline ticket  office or a travel agency or through the Internet. It records such other data as whether the passenger is flying alone or with family members or other companions, along with details such as any known criminal connections or instances of misconduct toward the airlines, their personnel, or their property.

Each time a passenger checks in at an airport, this information is verified and updated with the latest data, including the individual’s response to the screening questions. Precise details of the data collected and of the processing and profiling methods used remain one of the industry’s most closely guarded secrets. Various systems similar to CAPS are used around the world, some with direct links to other government and international policing agencies, such as Interpol. At many European airports, passport-control systems can record and track a passenger’s flight history and movements from one country to another.

This profiling is done on the premise that evil-minded individuals are more of a potential security threat than items like carryons and checked bags. Thus, to enhance airport security further, various biometric devices and smart cards are options currently being considered or implemented.

Apart from passenger profiling, the quest to prevent hazardous items and substances from getting on board aircraft is another important concern involved in airport security. Screening done with X-ray machines has its limitations. Airport security personnel find it difficult to remain attentive for long periods of time because watching foggy X-ray images of luggage passing before their eyes can be a mind-numbing experience. At the same time, magnetometers continue to cry wolf again and again, detecting house keys, loose change, and belt buckles.

Tougher Legislation

To offset such limitations, governments have responded with legislation that tightens airport security. In the United States, this requires that baggage matching, complete inspecting of cabin items, and screening of all checked baggage for explosives be implemented by the end of 2002. Cockpit doors are in the process of being strengthened and secured. Additional crisis training is provided for airline personnel. Armed sky marshals have also been deployed on commercial flights.

In the weeks and months after 9/11, passengers were frisked and luggage was hand-inspected in many airports around the world. In some instances, a secondary manual screening of passengers and carry-on items was made. Precautions of this type are already familiar to European travelers, who saw them widely implemented during the 1970’s, when hijackings reached a peak. Passengers are now banned from carrying any sharp instruments on board. Only ticketed travelers are allowed  past security. Many have become accustomed to longer check-in lines and the presence of armed military personnel in airport terminals.

Stress on Maintenance

Picture this all-too-familiar scene: After having waded through numerous airport checks, the passenger eventually finds himself at the gate, waiting to hear the airline agent’s call for boarding. “Did you hear?” says the passenger in the gray business suit next to him. “There’s a mechanical delay.” He rolls his eyes and adds: “I hope they don’t send us off without an engine!”

What most passengers do not realize is that aviation agencies have rigorous and painstaking inspection systems. Repair needs are anticipated through careful monitoring of the plane’s mechanical log book. Such agencies require, in fact, that airplanes and their engines undergo strictly scheduled maintenance overhauls​—far more frequently than the average automobile—​even if the aircraft has an absolutely trouble-free record.

A maintenance officer at a major airline can testify to this. “In my nearly 15 years in this industry,” he says, “I have never seen, talked to, or observed anyone who works on maintenance who did not take safety very seriously. After all, the employees’ friends and families also fly on the aircraft that they work with, so they don’t take foolish chances.”

Personal responsibility weighs heavily upon aircraft technicians and maintenance workers. One of them recalls: “I’ll never forget the night we lost a DC-10 in Sioux City, Iowa. I was working as an aircraft technician at the  time, and I had the job of doing an inspection and service inside the tail assembly of the same type of aircraft. At this point, we had very little information about what had actually happened to the aircraft that was lost. I remember the intensity with which I went about my work that night, wondering, ‘What happened to that aircraft? Did someone else possibly miss something that I might be able to find now and thus avert such a tragedy again? Was I doing everything exactly the way I was supposed to?’ I spent a long time up in the tail that evening, looking and thinking.”

Aircraft technicians are constantly given training in all areas of their work, from routine tasks to very advanced inspection and trouble-shooting skills. Crew training courses are updated yearly to cover every conceivable type of situation that could be encountered, from the mundane to the extraordinary.

After an airline tragedy, the data gathered is analyzed and entered into a simulator. Test pilots and aircraft engineers fly the simulator to see what other possible solutions they can come up with so that crews can handle similar problems better in the future. Then, a training program dealing with this is arranged for crews so that specific instruction can be given.  Examinations like this also lead to aircraft and part-design changes, in the hope that such failures can prove instructive and can thus be minimized.

A maintenance worker concludes: “We are all told that ‘safety does not happen by accident​—it must be planned for.’”

Back in the Air

After a self-imposed, four-month no-fly moratorium, Alex decided that it was time to deal with his phobia. The presence of police officers and national guardsmen at Boston’s Logan International Airport did not seem to bother him. Long check-in lines and the hand-searching of his luggage did not upset him at all.

For Alex these were reassuring signs in his own quest for safer skies. There is still a little sweat and a little heart pounding. However, as Alex stows his hand-checked carryon in the overhead bin, he says: “I feel much better now.”

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Facts on Flying

According to estimates, fear of flying is shared by as many as 1 in 5 air passengers. However, not all these people feel that flying is unsafe. Often, their anxieties stem from other phobias, such as fear of heights or of crowded spaces.

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Chance in Chance in

a year is 1 in: a lifetime is 1 in:

Motor vehicle 6,212 81

Homicide 15,104 197

Machinery 265,000 3,500

Airplane crash 390,000 5,100

Drowning in bathtub 802,000 10,500

Venomous animals, plants 4.2 million 55,900

Lightning 4.3 million 56,000

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Source: National Safety Council

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Increased airport security

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AP Photo/Joel Page

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Passenger profiling and screening

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Improved maintenance

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Pilots are highly trained professionals