By BILL ADAIR
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2001
WASHINGTON -- It seemed surprisingly easy.
Tuesday morning, the airliners hijacked for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon took off within 15 minutes of each other from three different cities, indicating a stunning breach of the nation's aviation security system.
Although officials have not yet provided details about what happened to the pilots of the four airliners or how the pilots might have been subdued, it appears the attackers were able to take control of the big jetliners and use them like missiles.
Members of Congress said the security system had failed.
"There were four airplanes hijacked, two from the same airport and one from the nation's capital," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Largo Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "There is no doubt that aviation security broke down."
Said Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach: "Clearly there was a serious shortfall in aviation security. There has definitely been a breach."
The system to detect weapons and foil hijackers has worked remarkably well since it was put in place in the 1970s. It has prevented all but a handful of minor events.
There was a 1979 hijacking of an American Airlines plane from New York to Chicago by a Serbian nationalist. The hijacker freed all 127 passengers and five of the plane's eight crew members at Chicago's O'Hare airport. And there was a 1991 case involving a man on a United Airlines flight who threatened to hijack a plane because he was upset that he couldn't smoke.
Cathal Flynn, who was in charge of security for the Federal Aviation Administration from 1993 to 2000, said the system has been very successful. He said that in modern history until Tuesday, no one had been killed from an act of aviation terrorism on a domestic flight.
"There is a lot of diligence that goes on in the screening system," said Flynn, who now works for Argenbright, an aviation security company. "Nevertheless, the FAA has recognized that the quality of screening needed to be improved."
The nation's aviation security system is based on fences and metal detectors.
The fences and other physical barriers are supposed to limit who can get near an airliner. Only airline employees and other authorized workers are allowed on the Tarmac near a plane.
The metal detectors are supposed to identify any weapons that passengers might try to carry on board a plane. Every year, 1,000 to 2,000 weapons are found by the employees at the metal detectors. Many more guns and knives are found in airport trash cans and rest rooms, where they have been discarded.
The system has its holes.
For years, inspectors have found that unauthorized people could get access to airplanes and that many weapons went undetected by security employees.
"The big question is how the terrorists got weapons aboard the plane," said Bill Sorbie, a retired US Airways pilot who lives in St. Petersburg. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways. You put me in an airport I've never even seen before, and I guarantee you I'll get aboard a plane with a weapon."
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Barbara Olson, a lawyer and television commentator aboard the plane that hit the Pentagon, called her husband from the air and told him that the hijackers were using knives.
Knives have been known to go undetected by screening employees.
Once hijackers took control of the planes, it would have been relatively easy to make a collision course with the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. With clear weather in New York and Washington, the pilots would not have needed navigational aids to find their way to the targets, Sorbie said.
The air traffic control system is not designed to prevent incidents like Tuesday's attacks. The mission for air traffic controllers is to keep airplanes moving through the skies while safely separated from other aircraft.
Beary Johns, an air traffic controller in the New York area, said planes frequently fly within a mile of World Trade Center, so there might have been very little warning for controllers when the plane suddenly veered toward the building.
"There's no way to stop them," Johns said.
There have been many complaints about security at the Boston airport, where two of the flights originated. The Boston Globe reported two years ago that doors were left propped open, giving unauthorized people access to the runways and airplanes. The newspaper said screeners hired by the airlines to staff checkpoints in terminals "routinely failed" to detect test items, such as pipe bombs and guns that were hidden in bags carried by the special agents.
Boston is not alone. Similar findings have been made at many other airports over the years.
Last year, the General Accounting Office said the nation's aviation security system was vulnerable to an attack. The GAO said the people hired by the airlines and airports to operate weapons screening systems were poorly paid, often earning less than workers at airport fast-food restaurants.
"It is often said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link," Gerald Dillingham, the GAO's associate director for transportation, testified before a Senate subcommittee.
Similar findings have been made by the National Research Council and the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The FAA, responding to those complaints, has proposed new rules to regulate the screening companies. But final rules have not been issued.
"The FAA has been involved in a considerable effort to improve screening," Flynn said. "The FAA has not had its head in the sand about this."
- Times staff writer Jean Heller contributed to this report. Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or firstname.lastname@example.org.