ATHENS — The Athens airport is as safe as any airport in the world.
In the last month we landed twice at Athens, once on a Pan American flight from Los Angeles and again on an Olympic Airways flight from Santorini, and departed three times, twice on Olympic for points in Greece (Olympic has its own terminal) and once on Yugoslav Airlines.
Each time, security was highly visible and the crowds were as serene as airport crowds ever are. (The purpose of this report is not to influence your travel plans, but to share some firsthand impressions with you.)
Lax security at the airport got part of the blame for a June, 1985, hijacking of a TWA Athens-to-Rome flight, and the U.S. State Department at that time advised Americans to avoid it. But the advisory was lifted five weeks later when the State Department said airport security had improved enough to meet international airport security requirements.
Then the in-flight bombing of a TWA plane en route to Athens from Rome in April created new waves of panic among American travelers, and rightly or wrongly, many chose not to spend their vacation dollars to head for danger.
The two incidents, combined with a sporadic but dramatic series of other terrorist acts, all but cleared Europe of American tourists: In our month's stay we met only seven compatriots.
In that odd way that people have who swim against the tide, we congratulated each other for our timing. No problem getting hotel rooms, good service at restaurants, eager taxi drivers, attentive sales clerks, enough room on the transatlantic plane ride to lie down across an entire row of seats and sleep the flight away.
A Pan American flight attendant on the nearly empty plane to Europe said, "Sure, we worry. But I refuse to buy into the fear; that's what they want. I've just stopped watching the TV news or reading the papers." She smiled and added, "The odds are definitely in our favor."
Europeans do miss us. They are puzzled at why we stay away. They cite the statistics: 23 Americans killed by terrorists outside the United States last year; within the States there are an average of 52 murders a day.
Last year, according to the Greek National Tourist Organization, 7 million people visited Greece. (Americans topped the list in numbers; Japan was second.) And each day, 14,000 passengers go in and out of the Athens airport.
Greece has made a great effort to tighten security at the airport, and possibly a greater effort to convince travelers that they will be safe on their passage through its corridors.
However, my request to check out airport security for this article turned out to be no simple task. I was directed from the information counter to the police commander, from the Olympic terminal to the international terminal, from the Office of Airport Administration to the Chief Deputy of Security, and finally was taken across Athens (accompanied by a growing entourage of bureaucrats) for an appearance before Minister of Public Order Antonis Drossoyannis. At last, he gave official approval to my request.
I was told that a police force of 1,000 patrols the airport, that they are highly trained, and that older equipment has recently been replaced with new Heimann high-scan X-ray machines. A fence around the airport was repaired after the 1985 incident.
And the government has changed its rules to allow airlines to conduct their own security checks even though officials consider the airport's security measures adequate.
Police officers patrol the entrances and stroll the public waiting areas with high visibility and heavy artillery. Outside the main entrance is a large military tank that ostensibly could transport several of them into a dangerous situation if necessary.
At the security checkpoints, the guards were as careful and attentive as any that we encountered during the month's tour, including those at LAX. Purses and cameras were scrutinized, along with pill bottles, baby strollers, babies themselves. In some cases, individuals were patted down or taken behind a partition for a more thorough search.
Monitors in the departure area made no mention of U.S. airlines or destinations. Departure gates weren't announced until shortly before each plane was ready for loading, so that passengers heading for any and all international destinations sat in the general departure area once they had cleared the security check.
Of all the airports we passed through, Germany's security seemed most thorough, both at Frankfurt and Munich. For example, teams of police officers in Munich boarded the plane after passengers got off and searched under the seats with long-handled mirrors.