Concerns linger over security at nation's airports

At Indianapolis International Airport, not much seems out of the ordinary. The lines at the check-in counters are a little longer, but curbside check-in has returned, the concourses are packed, the gifts shops stay busy and scents waft from restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

But look closer.

Passengers are occasionally asked to step behind a blue curtain to have their belongings thoroughly checked. People seem a bit more nervous, but at the same time they're complaining less about the security procedures.

However, the most glaring difference involves the Indiana National Guardsmen strolling through the airport in their camouflage fatigues, sporting black berets on their heads and 9mm pistols at their hips. Some stand by the information desk drinking Starbucks coffee; others engage in conversation with travelers on their way to catch a flight.

"We're building confidence," said one national guardsman. "We get a lot of handshakes, and people really appreciate it."

But some wonder whether the National Guard and other security measures at airports nationwide provide any real security or are just a veneer to hide the flaws in the system in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Our biggest concern is that it (security) is still inadequate and it's some variation of what they had before 9/11," Paul Hudson, executive director for the Washington D.C. based Aviation Consumer Action Project, said in a telephone interview.

"Unfortunately, very little seems to be happening," Dawn Deeks, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington D.C., said in a telephone interview. "As flight attendants we're in a pretty unique position to see what is really going on. About 95 percent of all checked baggage is not screened. Also if I check my bag and just go home, my bag still goes on that flight.

"We're also worried about all the people who have access to the plane, such as caterers and ground crews. All they have to do is flash a badge."

National Guard officials concede that guardsmen are present mainly to augment existing screening personnel.

"They are there to provide visible security and bolster confidence in the flying public," said Maj. Sara Hall, public affairs officer for the Indiana National Guard. "They're mostly an extra set of eyes to assist personnel and to assist local authorities upon request."

At Indianapolis the guardsmen stand watch over the security checkpoints and patrol the areas beyond the metal detectors. They warn anyone with a camera who gets too close.

But the firearms are also indicators that they are ready to take action if need be.

"If there is imminent danger to guardsmen or civilian personnel, they can draw their weapons," Hall said. "They are instructed in the rules of engagement and the legal ramifications of that."

Airlines are in charge of security at most of the nation's major airports, but Airline representatives are currently unable to comment on security procedures.

"There are strict limits upon what I can say about security matters or anything that has to do with details," said U.S. Airways spokesman, Rick Weintraub.

The airlines are requesting that passengers be at the airport about two hours before their scheduled departure time, to accommodate the security procudures, Dennis Rosebrough, director of public affairs for Indianapolis International Airport, said.

Most travelers don't mind the hassle, and some even think that more should be done.

"One thing they should do is check every bag since they're being really picky about what you can bring on board," said Mike Roberts, who was visiting from San Diego.

"It is inconvenient, but I can understand," said Sue Hicks of Indianapolis who was waiting for her bags. "I saw an article recently about security in Israeli airports. Americans can get up to that level, but our society wouldn't tolerate it. There's more we can do, but people would just be too impatient."

According to Deeks the airlines were unwilling to sacrifice convenience before Sept. 11, and that's why it took such a catastrophe to make people concerned about the defects in the security system, and why the airlines had been so hesitant to do much.

"The airlines are always reluctant to do anything that they have to spend money on," she said. "And the FAA is reluctant to force them. The FAA gets a lot of flack on delays and they hear a lot of complaints. They're too quick to listen to economy rather than safety.

"They're still worried that if 80 percent of their flights take off on time, then passengers will come back. Rushing safety checks so flights will take off on time makes little sense. If the flights are in danger, then that's a deterrent."

The airlines continue taking the wrong approach, Hudson said.

"What it always takes to implement change is major casualties," he said. "The airlines use a procedure called cost-benefit analysis, which measures the cost of not doing something with the cost of saving lives. The main reason security wasn't better was the unwillingness to implement measures and the inability to foresee events of Sept. 11."


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