The terrorist bomb that blew apart a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, two years ago last Friday exposed critical gaps in airline security that are not yet closed today, even as experts say Mideast tensions could heighten the prospects for disaster in the skies.
Aside from tedious and time-consuming hand searches, there is still no reliable way to find a bomb such as the one that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 and left its 259 passengers dead.
Experts say the science of bomb detection continues to lag behind the dark talents of bomb makers, who have learned to defy a security network designed largely to frustrate hijackers. Scientists have yet to come up with a machine that can quickly and accurately spot deadly explosives.
The art of screening passengers to isolate potential terrorists--a technique pioneered by the vaunted Israeli security system--remains unsophisticated elsewhere and relies almost entirely on the questionable instincts of security guards.
Security is "totally inadequate," said Washington security consultant Billie Vincent, a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief. "We are still extremely vulnerable to a (Lockerbie)-type device."
Fortunately, the risk of a terrorist attack on an American airliner is extremely small, even on international flights. On average, there is just one bombing incident involving an American airliner on any of the 6.5 million departures a year.
"It is a statistically insignificant threat," said Richard Lally, vice president-security for the Air Transport Assn., the industry lobby. "Of course, it is not so insignificant when you are the statistic."
In the view of several experts, the terrorist threat--although still low within the United States--has increased generally since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
The man believed by some investigators to have invented the sort of bomb that blew up Pan Am Flight 103 lives in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Frank Maguire, a terrorism expert based in Washington, believes that terrorists are in place in strategic locations worldwide, waiting for the word from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to strike.
It is possible that Maguire's vision exaggerates the potential danger, but few deny that a war involving the United States and Iraq would put American airliners at risk.
Clyde E. Robbins, a retired Coast Guard vice admiral who in June became the Department of Transportation's first intelligence and security director, said the Persian Gulf crisis has indeed heightened the terrorist threat in Europe.
Although he believes that the threat in the United States at this time is low, Robbins has ordered the airlines to prepare "contingency plans for a higher (security) level."
Citing a need for secrecy, Robbins would not say what intensified security measures would involve.
The government has taken a number of steps lately to tighten security, prompted in part by a presidential commission that took an exhaustive look at U.S. safety measures in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing.
The FAA has ordered tighter screening of bags on overseas flights--more X-raying and pairing baggage with passengers--and has deployed advisers to work out security kinks in foreign countries.
The agency has also stepped up its research into bomb detection and is working on tougher training standards for security guards. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, who oversees the FAA, appointed Robbins as a sort of security czar, responsible for getting the system into shape.
In addition, the Aviation Security Act, passed in October, requires the FAA to draw up tougher safety regulations for foreign carriers that operate here.
A number of U.S. airlines have improved security beyond what is required.
Pan Am--highly criticized for security lapses in its inspection of bags loaded on its doomed Flight 103--has taken steps to make travel safer. It has, for instance, purchased a number of sophisticated X-ray machines that produce a color-coded image of the contents of a suitcase. An orange color may indicate a potential explosive, but the system is not foolproof.
Pan Am, the largest transatlantic carrier, said that since 1987 it has quadrupled the amount spent on security to $63 million this year.
Robbins said steps taken by the airlines and the government have helped produce a security system that is better than it was two years ago. But he added: "Let me hasten to say that it is not perfect. . . . There is considerably more work to be done."
The task is a tricky one, complicated by a Byzantine structure in which the government makes the rules but leaves execution up to each airline. The airlines, in turn, generally don't undertake security measures themselves, hiring outside contractors instead.
The situation is even more complex in international travel; it is not unusual for regulations in foreign countries to conflict with U.S. safety rules.