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Politics vs. Air Safety

January 06, 2002

It doesn't take a high school education to see that political gamesmanship is dragging out what was supposed to be a hurried effort to make flying safer, while the modest improvements that have been made become riddled with worrisome loopholes.

The most fundamental safeguard has been the Aviation Security Act of 2001, one part of which makes airport screeners federal employees. The measure significantly raised the bar for those hoping to fill the new position, which is supposed to offer a career path, rather than just a paycheck. The new screeners, for instance, must be U.S. citizens, receive 60 hours of on-the-job training and 40 hours of classroom instruction. But the Department of Transportation, intent on retaining many of the current screeners, has pressured Congress to substitute a year of work experience for the high school diploma that would have been required.

The public shouldn't let that happen. In demanding a shakeup of airport security, Americans envisioned a new breed of screener who would be a cut above the current, minimum-wage worker, someone able to detect false passports, ask tough questions diplomatically and make discerning judgments about which passengers should be taken aside for closer scrutiny. Those on this first and most important line of defense against terrorists will also need to be adept with computers and high-tech detection equipment.

But even crackerjack screeners will be like cops in Yugos chasing crooks in Corvettes until airport screening gear is updated. Here, Transportation Department head Norman Y. Mineta is reportedly moving as quickly as possible to buy and install machines, including ones that use jets of air to pick up molecules from skin and clothing and then chemically test them for traces of explosives. But most equipment at the moment is unable to detect plastic explosives of the kind that Richard C. Reid allegedly inserted into his shoes.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Department is almost certain not to meet the Jan. 18 deadline the Aviation Security Act set for examining all checked luggage for explosives. Some of the government's excuses for its pokiness are understandable. Fighting terrorism is new to the United States. Some steps taken early on--such as flooding airports with National Guardsmen--need to be reconsidered.

One obvious move to get things rolling would be to have someone in charge of the new Transportation Security Administration. Yet it appears that the confirmation of John Magaw, President Bush's nominee to run the agency, has hit a strange snag.

Magaw is eminently qualified for the position, having previously headed the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But Senate Republicans say that one of their colleagues has placed a secret hold on his nomination. Why? Some hint it is because Magaw once defended some of the ATF's actions during the infamous 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge--a favorite obsession of some fringe types.

Holding public safety hostage to petty politics is reckless. Americans will have many other words for such behavior if, as a result of stalled airport security, someone with explosive sneakers blows a passenger jet out of the sky.

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