Commercial airliners are terrorists favored targets for a simple reason. Hijacked, bombed in midair or flown into landmarks, airplanes under terrorist control create a spectacular jolt. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, it was common sense that the first priority of the federal government be a dramatic overhaul of commercial aviation security. Much has been spent (more than $12 billion) and much accomplished to reduce immediate vulnerabilities.
As a result, air travelers are accustomed to more stringent passenger- and bag-screening procedures and armed air marshals on flights. Pilots are permitted to carry weapons in cockpits, behind reinforced cockpit doors. A new Transportation Security Administration oversees efforts to reduce the risk of a terrorist strike. There are, of course, the delays and inconveniences to passengers, screeners who miss dangerous items and the cases of mistaken identity that put innocent citizens on terrorist watch lists. For the most part, the attention to commercial aviation has closed many of the obvious security loopholes that made airlines easy pickings for terrorists.
Thats not to say all that should be done has been done. An association of airline pilots recently drew attention to several areas in which the group thought security measures have been inadequate. Among the issues raised were such problems as inadequate screening of airline employees and air cargo and the protection of planes from shoulder-to-air missiles.
A recently published assessment conducted jointly by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security identified other problem areas in general aviation. The report pointed to holes that al-Qaida and terrorist groups looking for opportunities to repeat the Sept. 11 assaults could exploit with damaging results. The report observed that tighter security around commercial operations is leading terrorists to shift their focus where security is more easily breached.
The shift, the agencies report said, is toward noncommercial and smaller aircraft, such as corporate and private jets, and helicopters as inviting targets. These aircraft are not perceived as posing the same level of risk as commercial planes, and they are not guarded or operated at the stricter levels of security as have been established for commercial aviation.
Thousands of small aircraft criss-cross the skies daily. The report exposes a blind spot in aviation security. Those weaknesses must be addressed. The challenge is doing so without neglecting other areas of the transportation system. Other studies have already made the compelling case for bolstering security along the nations rail lines and at its many ports.