New airport headaches may be price of safety

A Times Editorial
Published November 17, 2007

Delay and inconvenience at the airport already have the travelling public agitated, so increased passenger scrutiny probably would create more frustration. Yet that's what it might take to keep air travel safe, a government agency told Congress.

Investigators with the Government Accountability Office secretly smuggled material to make improvised bombs past security checkpoints at 19 airports. "With the pat-down procedures now in place, we wouldn't have been caught," said John Cooney, one of the GAO employees who carried bomb components past screeners. "That has to change."

About the only person resisting change at a recent congressional hearing on the findings was Kip Hawley, who as head of the Transportation Security Administration is in charge of airport security. "We know what the vulnerabilities are," Hawley said. "It's not something about which the public should panic."

Panic? No. Air travel has been remarkably safe in recent years. But it would be more reassuring if Hawley expressed at least a little sense of urgency. The GAO showed a video of the damage done by the kind of improvised explosive device that could have been fabricated with the common materials they smuggled past security. Detonated inside a car, the bomb buckled the doors and sent metal and glass shards flying. A similar explosion could, potentially, bring a plane down.

Americans should be grateful to the GAO and members of Congress for conducting such investigations, which should continue. Ultimately, only a vigilant security effort is likely to be successful.

This could lead, however, to a re-evaluation by the public. How much more inconvenience at the airport - including intrusive security measures such as physical pat downs and tight restrictions on carry-on luggage - will travelers accept to gain more safety? Those who realize how easily dangerous material is smuggled aboard a plane and see the damage it can do just might be ready to raise their tolerance level.