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Safe Travel

September 18, 2001

New regulations that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has handed down in the wake of last Tuesday's murderous attack include several that are arbitrary, burdensome, and unlikely to make our airplanes or airports any safer. Some of these rules have left pilots, passengers, and security experts scratching their heads.

  • Abolishing curbside check-in. Firing most of the nation's skycaps and doing away with fast and efficient check-in will likely hurt, not help, airport security. It will result in longer lines and greater confusion inside. Bags checked at the curb are typically subject to the same X-ray and inspection facilities inside the airport. The real issue, therefore, is strengthening security and realizing production-line efficiencies after bags hit airport conveyor belts.

    Even without such improvements, it is important to remember that there have been no reported instances of terrorists blowing up planes after sneaking past any one of the nation's 25,000 skycaps. Many of these workers will lose their jobs. It is also a blow to consumer convenience, one that will particular affect elderly Americans. 

  • Elimination of mail and cargo. For airlines, mail and cargo is often cream off the top. Since boxes and envelopes can be subject to even more rigorous searches than people's bodies and baggage, they pose no greater risk. If we want our airlines to survive this incident and our fares to remain reasonable, the ban must be lifted.
  • Keeping cars 300 feet from airport gates. Dozens of airports nationwide lost thousands of prime, revenue-generating parking spaces that did not conform to the 300-feet rule. Yet when was the last time a plane was hijacked with a car bomb? Because cars can still drop off and pick up luggage and passengers mere yards from jetliners, the FAA rule will have no more effect than an aspirin on a brain hemorrhage.
  • Ban on VFR flights. To date, the FAA has banned VFR flights except in Alaska. The rule has grounded most of the country's 288,000 private pilots. This prohibition is also decimating the $8.6 billion private aviation business and serves no purpose. Most small planes carry less than 60 gallons of fuel and weigh under 3,000 pounds. They pose no threat to national security. In fact, private pilots across the nation aid law enforcement with surveillance and search and rescue in all fifty states. The ban must be lifted immediately.

By contrast, there are several proposals that enjoy support by pilots and experts that the FAA should consider:

  • Side arms. Arming the cockpit crew with side arms is a must. The pilot in command, like a captain at sea, should have superior arms commensurate with his authority. In the future, pilots, many who have prior military training, will not think twice about facing terrorists with box-cutters and plastic knives. 

    In addition, airline employees should be permitted to carry stun guns and a variety of other weapons. The FAA's decision, undertaken decades ago, to either forbid or heavily discourage these from being carried by pilots and crew has left airlines vulnerable to the most malicious passengers. You can’t screen for malice; you have to deter it with force. 

  • Tighter restrictions on access. Only authorized personnel should be permitted access to certain secured areas in the airport. Access-card technology currently exists that could limit access to ramps, gates, fuel facilities, and other sensitive areas.
  • Cockpit access. Parts of the plane should also be off limits. Cockpits are the "holy of holies." They should be physically inaccessible to everyone except flight crew. Lightweight, bulletproof Kevlar doors, favored by most pilots, can provide added security.

Some of these measures would be undertaken by airline companies themselves, provided they can be released from onerous federal restrictions. After all, no institution has a greater incentive to increase airline security than the airlines themselves, who have both property and paying customers to protect.

Americans deserve the most secure airports, aircraft, and airspace system that can be devised. Nevertheless, even in times of crisis, administrative agencies like the FAA must ensure that there is adequate cause and effect between its rules and the results that follow. The initial round of regulations does not give grounds for optimism.

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Jamie Beckett holds a commercial pilot's license. He is also a flight instructor and certified mechanic. Jay Chris Robbins is a Miami-based writer. He has soloed and logged sixty hours flight time in small planes. You can contact them at jcr@jcrobbins.com.


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