Air Security Experts Hope to Close Gaps Before It's Too Late

Aviation-security experts say all the reactions focus too much on past incidents and not on what innovative attack might come next.


WASHINGTON - An airplane could be blown out of the sky by a cigarette-pack-sized bomb hidden in a cargo hold or a small, plastic bag of explosives tucked inside a passenger's clothes.

Those scenarios - and others - are among the many concerns expressed by aviation-security experts and lawmakers who say gaping holes remain in the nation's security net despite myriad improvements since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Their interest became more intense last month when airline employees in Orlando smuggled a duffel bag full of guns and drugs onto a Delta flight to Puerto Rico.

Since the March 5 incident, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed more laws to protect airline passengers. In addition, Orlando International Airport and the Transportation Security Administration quickly beefed up screening of airline and federal airport employees.

But there's pressure to do much more. Among the weaknesses identified in the nation's current system:

Screeners have no technology to detect whether passengers walking through a checkpoint have liquid explosives hidden on them.

All checked bags are screened for explosives. But the most effective way of screening is expensive, so only a few airports employ it. Others airports use technology that critics say is largely ineffective.

The vast majority of the cargo loaded onto passenger planes is not screened.

Thousands of airport, airline and vendor employees throughout the country duck in and out of secure areas by simply flashing their badges instead of going through screening. That loophole allowed two Comair employees at Orlando International to sneak an assault rifle and 13 handguns onto a Delta Air Lines flight to Puerto Rico, leading to renewed uproar over passenger safety.

Major changes in airline security followed the Sept. 11 attacks, in which terrorists brought down four airliners and killed nearly 3,000 people.

All checked bags were ordered screened for explosives. Cockpit doors were made impregnable. The air-marshal program was beefed up considerably. Some pilots were given permission to carry guns. The screener work force was federalized and trained better. Terrorist watch lists were expanded. And items that passengers can bring aboard were limited.

After Richard Reid tried to light a bomb in his shoe during a flight, new rules were added to screen footwear as well. And after a plot was uncovered last summer to bomb flights between England and the U.S., liquids in carry-on bags were limited.

But aviation-security experts say all the reactions focus too much on past incidents and not on what innovative attack might come next.

"I have a great concern about the system's ability to be able to even detect an attack, which I greatly fear is in the planning stages," said Rep. John Mica of Florida, the top Republican on the House Transportation Committee.

Mica's biggest fear is "clean terrorists and clean bombs," meaning attacks by people who don't fit traditional terrorist profiles using easily available materials that can evade current bomb detection.

"If terrorists were to light up a neon sign in front of the Capitol and give us a hint what they're doing, they couldn't be any clearer. The next one will be a clean bomb," said Mica, who has access to classified briefings. "There's nothing in place that will prevent that."

David Heyman, director of homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said liquid explosives have been a threat since long before Sept. 11, notably the 1995 "Bojinka" plot to blow multiple jetliners out of the sky. But it took the discovery of a new plot in Britain to bring about rules limiting the liquids that passengers bring on board, he said.

There are no security checkpoints that can detect hidden liquids on passengers.

A body-scanning machine that shows screeners an X-ray-type image of people is being tested in Phoenix. It shows a picture that could detect hidden liquids, but it also has raised concerns about privacy.

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