Safety alerts in the air

Friday, January 2, 2004

The delicate balance between security and threats of terrorism reached another milestone this week. The United States has informed foreign airlines that fly over U.S. air space they may be required to include armed law enforcement officers among their passengers.

Some airlines already have been putting armed agents on board a few U.S. flights. Others are likely to cooperate, since the United States, like other nations, can close its air space to any flight considered to be a safety risk.

The precaution is seen as a response to the heightened orange-level security alert imposed several days before Christmas. There are intelligence reports that indicate al-Qaida operatives trained to fly planes and crash them into U.S. targets are more likely to be aboard flights that originate overseas and are headed to or across this nation.

While the extra security measures aboard U.S flights will provide a certain comfort level for many passengers, the Department of Homeland Security is still struggling to find the best way to handle changes in alert status.

When the color-coded alert system was put in place, any increase in alert status kept potential passengers away from airports. U.S. and foreign airlines that fly to U.S. destinations are still struggling to recover from the drastic drop in passengers that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

These days, many Americans seem to be confused by the terror alerts -- not because they don't understand them but because they don't know what they're supposed to do in response.

For the most part, the alerts best serve the interests of the many layers of security agencies, from the Transportation Safety Administration to local police departments, more than travelers. If there is any impact on airline passengers when the alert status changes, it is likely to be longer waits at airport security checkpoints -- a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the possibility of letting a terrorist aboard a flight.

One good trend is that holiday travel this year was not decreased because of the higher alert status. This is either an indication that Americans feel safer as the result of increased security measures in the past two-plus years or pay little attention to the alerts, regardless of the color.

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