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Sunday, September 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Air travel: Security is Sept. 11 legacy

Seattle Times staff reporter

How many of us still cringe at the sight of a low-flying airplane silhouetted against the skyline? How many, a year later, shudder when the train enters the tunnel or when the cruise ship drifts beyond the harbor?

In the weeks after Sept. 11, the government, the travel industry and the public demanded, pleaded, for new security procedures: better screeners, random searches, sky marshals on every flight, file sharing among federal agencies.

From airlines to trains to cruise ships to bus lines, every segment of the travel industry has attempted to upgrade its security procedures. But, as the nation prepares to commemorate its saddest day in at least a generation, how much has actually changed? And what more needs to be done?

The airlines

As did all airports, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport improved security after the attacks by screening for sharp objects, scrutinizing travel plans, instituting random searches and keeping parked cars at least 300 feet from terminals. (That restriction was rescinded, but vehicles taller than 6 feet 6 inches are still banned from parking garages.)

"Airport security is probably four times better than it was," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based passenger-advocacy group. "But on a scale of one to 10, it's gone from a one to a four."

That leaves several important levels for improvement. As a start, Congress set a deadline of Dec. 31 for all checked bags to be screened for explosives. Everyone supports the idea, but everyone from the airports to Stempler doubts it can be implemented by the deadline.

"It's not realistic for us to meet the end of year," says Gina Marie Lindsey, Sea-Tac's managing director of aviation. The airport currently has only four Explosive Detection System scanning machines, used for international flights, which already require such scanning.

Lindsey estimates Sea-Tac will require 35 to 40 machines to comply with the new policy. But that's not as simple as buying the scanners, she says. The airport figures that as much as $250 million in infrastructure reinforcements and improvements will be required to accommodate the SUV-sized machines.

As an alternative to the scanners, airports may use smaller Electronic Trace Detection machines, which analyze fabric taken from a wand that is run over bags. But Lindsey says Sea-Tac would need 155 of those machines, and would have to set them up in what is currently lobby space.

Lindsey says Sea-Tac will need 18 months to two years to comply with the screening mandate.

Leaving aside the debate over the timetable for explosives screening, Stempler believes the Explosive Detection System machines are too slow and too inaccurate.

The machines can scan only 150 to 200 bags an hour, and have a 20 percent to 30 percent fault rate, he says.

Lindsey agrees. "To my knowledge, there is no airport experience that has gotten more than 200 bags per hour through," Lindsey says. At that rate, she says, "We would have queues of passengers filling the terminals on the first and second levels."

Stempler, too, believes the machines will "bog the system down." He wants U.S. airports to adopt the European approach, a three-tier system that begins with X-ray scanners that can process 1,200 to 1,500 bags per hour. Suspicious bags are sent to a more thorough scanner for reinspection. Bags that trigger the second scanner are then inspected by hand.

Stempler's group also believes that randomly screening individuals is a waste of time and resources, one that compromises the effectiveness of the new security measures. Every security resource tied up in extra scrutiny of a frequent flier or a congressman is a resource not trained on the "unknown" passenger pool, he says.

He advocates a "trusted-traveler" program, in which flyers could choose to submit to extensive background checks by the government. After they were cleared, these travelers would be issued a card that carried a photo along with a thumb or palm print, or, perhaps, the results of a retinal scan.

Trusted travelers would then show the card at security checkpoints and receive only cursory screening, similar to what all travelers received prior to Sept. 11. The system would benefit vetted travelers by getting them quickly through security, and, Stempler says, it would benefit the security of everyone else by allowing screeners to focus on passengers whose backgrounds had not been checked out.

Cruise lines

Within five hours of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, representatives of the world's largest cruise lines arranged a conference call to discuss threats to their industry.

"We knew precisely what measures we needed to take immediately," recalls Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, which represents the 16 largest cruise companies. That's because cruise lines adopted a set of security-readiness standards after the 1985 hijacking of the Italian ship Achille Lauro.

The cruise companies decided during that conference call to jump to the highest security level, level three, where the industry remains today. Level three, Crye said, means all passengers and crew members must show identification prior to boarding, every piece of luggage and all carry-on items are screened, and dogs and machines are used to detect explosives.

Amtrak

As with so much of its operation, there is a huge gap between what Amtrak would like to do to increase security and what it has the money to do.

Within a few weeks of Sept. 11, the nation's passenger-train service began requiring customers to show identification when purchasing tickets. Amtrak also started using bomb-sniffing dogs to randomly check luggage. But the company has only about a dozen of the dogs nationwide, according to spokesman Cliff Black. "They are in short supply and there's some lead time in obtaining them," Black said.

This month, Amtrak conductors will begin randomly checking identification when collecting tickets from riders. The company hopes to improve its surveillance cameras, to purchase electronic explosive detectors and to upgrade its communications equipment. But Amtrak has no money for such improvements, Black acknowledged, and is awaiting the outcome of proposed legislation to see whether it will have the money in the future.

Greyhound

On Oct. 3, just three weeks after the attacks, a passenger slit the throat of a Greyhound bus driver while the bus traveled along a highway in Manchester, Tenn.

Several people were killed in the resulting crash. Greyhound shut down its service nationwide for five hours, after which it was determined that the attack was not terrorism.

Greyhound now conducts random searches in 30 locations, though a spokesperson would not say where. Rather than searching random individuals, however, the company searches every passenger on randomly selected buses.

Greyhound plans to add security guards to its bus terminals and to improve security cameras in terminals, the spokesperson said.

John Wolfson: 206-464-2061 or jwolfson@seattletimes.com.

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