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Six years after 9/11, air security still lags

Earlier this year, while waiting in a long security line at Newark International airport, I watched as a security agent rummaged through the backpack of a pimple-faced teenager and confiscated a miniature Bud Light bottle magnet that contained a small amount of liquid. “There’s no way we can be sure that liquid isn’t an explosive,” she told the dumbfounded kid as she tossed the toy into a bin filled with bottles of hand sanitizer, sunscreen, and other “suspicious” items.

I sure as heck don’t want anyone to get blown up on an airplane, so I support strong security measures. But what’s so difficult about implementing a sophisticated screening system that can quickly and easily tell what’s dangerous and what’s not? The flying public shouldn’t be treated like criminals every time we need to travel.

September 11, 2001, was more than five years ago, yet many airports are not using up-to-date technology and the industry has yet to coordinate well enough to standardize procedures across the board. To make up for these inadequacies, the TSA has had to resort to embarrassing and time-consuming personal searches and draconian rules about what is and isn’t allowed in baggage.

This was made clear in comments made by officials at the World Air Transport Summit held in Vancouver on June 5. In his “State of the Air Transport Industry” presentation at the beginning of the summit, Giovanni Bisignani, Director General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association, said of air security: “This is the Matterhorn challenge; well known to all but progress with governments is painfully slow. Nearly six years after the tragic events of 2001 we are much more secure but the system is still a US $5.6 billion uncoordinated mess.” He went on to call the government air security efforts since 9/11 a failure overall due to lack of cooperation and global standards and slowness to implement new technology. “Our passengers have been hassled for six years,” he said. “That’s far too much.”

In a Vancouver Sun story about the summit, a U.S. government official, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Michael Jackson, is quoted as saying the industry needs to get its act together or face the possibility of “many more 9/11s.” Jackson also called for better security systems and faster implementation, suggesting that among other considerations, airlines install check-in kiosks at airports with fingerprint scanners.

The U.S. has made positive strides in developing new technology and security standards, but until these systems are implemented in all U.S. airports, it’s easier for terrorists to find and target weak spots. When you consider that in the past the U.S. has been able to act quickly and successful to solve huge global problems—the U.S. helped win the Second World War on two fronts in less than four years, for example—six years and counting to make air travel safer and more efficient across the board seems like an awfully long time. Whatever it takes, the government and airline industry need to move beyond their scattershot approach and work on developing a unified, efficient process for improving security. In the meantime, air passengers can expect the hassles to continue.

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