Circular Logic

The people watching the airlines should have and could have taken action... but didn't

No wonder the FAA was nervous. Yet its circulars were nothing but lip service. The agency didn't require airlines or airport authorities to act. To mandate any additional measures, the agency would have had to issue higher-level warnings, known as "security directives." These, according to aviation consultants, are rare.

Even when President Clinton ordered the FAA to improve security, the agency failed to do so.

When TWA Flight 800 fell into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 aboard, speculation (later discounted) abounded that it was the work of a terrorist's bomb or missile. In response, Clinton chartered a commission, chaired by Al Gore, to make the skies safer. Interestingly, the FAA circular warning about security testing was issued the day after TWA Flight 800 crashed.

In 1997, the commission came back with numerous recommendations, including better scrutiny of baggage and better profiling of passengers' travel habits to detect potential terrorists. Clinton ordered the FAA, along with the Department of Transportation, to make the changes. The agencies, however, didn't do it. "Several of the [September 11] terrorists bought one-way tickets and paid for them in cash to travel to their destinations," Gore commission member and retired Air Force Gen. John Michael Loh wrote in Aviation Week magazine after the attacks. "The profiling system we envisioned would have raised red flags in these cases, requiring the terrorists to face additional questions when they arrived at the airports.... The FAA failed to put in place a profiling system that could have prevented these attacks."

The FAA had many excuses, ranging from technological problems to bad relations with contractors, but as Loh points out, such excuses "ring hollow" in light of September 11. The agency also neglected to file required annual reports on its progress in improving security -- likely because there was none. While Loh notes that the DOT also deserves blame, "the major failure is one of leadership at all levels of the FAA."

The Washington, D.C., activist group Public Citizen, in a report issued in October, came to a similar conclusion, finding that the FAA converted the Gore commission's recommendations into "watered-down rules more favorable to the [airline] industry." In the report, which has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, Public Citizen also notes that the FAA's mission statement includes promoting the airline industry -- an obvious conflict of interest for an agency charged with enforcing federal rules.

To explain why FAA failed us, Public Citizen followed the money, finding that from 1997 through 2000, the airline industry spent some $63 million on Capitol Hill, much of it to fight stricter security measures. Many of the industry's lobbyists are former government officials and members of Congress. And the airlines spent another $11 million on campaign contributions. No wonder they needed that $15 billion bailout.

You can't really blame the airlines, though, ruled as they are by stockholders and the almighty dollar. Profit margins and good morals rarely coexist peacefully. It was the government's job to keep the airline industry in check, and that didn't happen.

Thankfully, the FAA will soon be put out of the business of security. Congress passed a new aviation security law mandating that by the end of 2002, a new entity, called the Transportation Security Administration, will conduct screening at airports. Last Thursday, President Bush announced in his televised address that TSA will eventually fall under the proposed Department of Homeland Security.

The fundamental problem, however, has never really been addressed: The airlines and their cash wield too much influence in government. And Bush, who worships at the altar of consumerism, has done little to put them in their place. The airlines and their government watchdogs have proven completely untrustworthy. They ignore warnings, fight good security measures, and then, when 19 hijackers traipse onto four of their planes and kill thousands of people, they hit up the country for a big bailout.

You'd think the airlines would be contrite now, paying penance. Nuh-uh. American Airlines CEO Don Carty, whose company owned jets that slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, recently pooh-poohed new security measures, saying, "The likelihood of a terrorist choosing aviation as the venue for future attack is very low."

When it comes to air security, the ultimate challenge for Bush isn't so much terrorism; it's whether he will ever put a collar on airline titans like Carty, money and commerce be damned.

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