The Brancatelli File



April 1, 1989 -- This should have been about Paris. You know, April in Paris. It could’ve been about the cherry blossoms in Washington,. Or what to do when you finally get to Turkey or Santa Fe this summer.

Unfortunately, this story has to be about making travel more secure.

That’s because instead of dreaming of Paris or London or Rome, Americans are getting nervous about their safety abroad again. We’re feeling like targets again. The last time this happened, in early 1986, five million Americans had reservations for Europe. But eventually one in three of us stayed away.

It’s different this year, however. We’re a little smarter, a bit more hard-boiled. We’re nervous again, but right now it looks as if we’ve no intention of staying home. This year we’ll travel if we feel everything possible is being done to make travel more secure.

Here is a reasonable, rational three-part program to make world travel safer. The recommendations listed under “What the Government Should Do” and “What the Airlines Should Do” are, unfortunately, subject to the vagaries of national and international politics. Their adoption could take years. But you can incorporate the list of practical suggestions under the section “What You Can Do” into your travel regimen immediately. These steps can’t guarantee your safety, of course, but they will make you feel less like a target and more like a traveler again.

1. Tap the Aviation Trust Fund.
Making air travel more secure will cost money, although no one can really say how much. But the government already holds a security deposit from the American traveling public for just this purpose. It is funded by the 8 percent federal tax you pay on every airline ticket and by other aviation taxes, and it’s earmarked for improvements in the nation’s air transportation system. However, in order to make the federal budget deficit seem smaller, the Reagan administration hoarded this special fund throughout the 1980s. By the end of fiscal 1988, it had a $5.9 billion surplus. The Bush administration should stop using the aviation-fund surplus for budgetary sleight of hand and spend some of the money to make our air transportation system more secure.

2. Follow Its Own Rules.
A 1985 law required the Federal Aviation Administration to assess regularly the safety of foreign airports and warn the American traveling public about any airport it considers unsafe. But a study released in December by the General Accounting Office reports that the FAA doesn’t construct its own test of security at foreign airports and won’t even analyze the security procedures used by local airport officials. Most Americans understand that the FAA can’t impose its methods of testing security on airports in sovereign nations. But logic dictates, safety demands—and the law requires—that the FAA at least study and judge the reliability of security at foreign airports. Americans understand Uncle Sam can’t always act in our defense overseas. But it’s intolerable—and illegal—if Uncle Sam isn’t at least thinking of our safety abroad.

3. Stop Reacting and Start Anticipating.
The government’s approach to airline terrorism has been amazingly consistent. In 1973 it ordered airlines to screen all passengers with metal detectors and to X-ray carry-on baggage, but only after hijackers had commandeered dozens of jets to Cuba in the late 1960s. It ordered airlines to screen all flight crews and their carry-on baggage in 1987, but only after a disgruntled ex-employee carried a gun aboard a PSA flight, assassinated the crew and caused the death of 43 passengers. It ordered airlines to inspect all checked luggage in Europe and the Middle East last December, but only after a Pan Am jet was destroyed over Scotland by a bomb smuggled into the cargo hold. It’s time for the government to act positively and create a forward-looking and demanding series of mandatory airline security standards. After-the-fact remedies are not sufficient. The government must promulgate security regulations designed to ensure safety in the 1990s and stop relying on disaster-by-disaster revisions of 1960s procedures.

4. Nationalize the Security System
U.S. Airlines still rely primarily on private security firms to ensure aircraft and passenger safety. Private guards, unflatteringly known as “rent-a-cops,” are too often underpaid, badly trained and poorly motivated. The federal government should create a special FAA police force to provide comprehensive security domestically and, where feasible, internationally. The FAA force’s sole function should be to protect American travelers and the American transportation system. Only the federal government has the jurisdiction and wherewithal to provide the level of security required today.

1. Tighten Existing Security Procedures.
Just two weeks before the Pan Am disaster, the FAA fined 29 airlines a total of $1.6 million. The fines were levied because in a three-month test FAA employees had successfully smuggled mock weapons past X-ray security checkpoints more than once in every 10 attempts. The guards who monitor airport X-ray machines work for private security firms employed by the nation’s airlines. The work is sensitive, but also incredibly tedious, and the pay is near the minimum wage. Once upon a time, in a less dangerous age, a bored minimum-wager who was 89 percent efficient might have been good enough for such work. But not now. The airlines have a duty to do better. They owe travelers security services provided by well-paid, properly motivated employees who understand the magnitude of their responsibilities.

2. Limit Access to Planes.
Aviation experts agree that the most dangerous gap in airport security today isn’t in the terminals, but on the tarmac. At large international airports, thousands of mechanics, fuel jockeys, janitors, baggage handlers and food-service workers have virtually unrestricted access to airplanes. Most of these workers aren’t even employed by the airlines, but by firms contracted to provide catering, sanitation and other specialized services. Worst of all, there’s no coherent system in place for monitoring the movements, activities and security clearance of these workers. If airlines are serious about making travel more secure, they’ll develop a three-prong program to: restrict the number of workers who have access to the airplanes; police the activities of workers employed to service airplanes; and force outside contractors to tighten hiring procedures to ensure that workers meet the standards airlines demand of their own employees.

3. Intensify Baggage and Cargo Inspection Procedures.
Airlines do not routinely inspect every piece of baggage and cargo. In most instances, checked baggage is inspected at random. Cargo from small shippers is rigorously inspected, but that of large, well-known shippers is rarely, if ever, checked. This game of baggage and cargo roulette should end. Ideally each airline should inspect—by hand, X-ray or Thermal Neutron Analysis, which can detect plastic explosives—every checked bag and every piece of freight stowed aboard every flight. Will this procedure take longer? Yes. Will it inconvenience passengers and shippers? Yes. Will it slow down the already laborious check-in procedures? Yes. But safety cannot be guaranteed by inspecting every fifth bag—or not even every other bag. It’s time to inspect every bag.

4. Level With Passengers About Major Security Threats.
Most airlines don’t inform passengers in advance about terrorism threats. Some of their reasons for withholding this information, such as the high false-alarm rate and the fear of copycat threats, are valid. Other reasons—including the airlines’ fear that you’ll stop spending money on travel—are not. The days when the airlines could automatically adopt a paternalistic “It’s better that you don’t know” attitude toward travelers are gone. What we don’t know can hurt us now. An airline need not publicly disclose every threat it receives. But a new yardstick for candor is required: any threat serious enough to make an airline boost its own security measures is a threat the airline should inform travelers about in advance, so they can take steps to protect their own lives.

1. Pack Your Own Bags.
Never let a maid, hotel valet or anyone else pack for you. Don’t even let a loved one do it. One unwitting woman arrested during a foiled terrorist plot in London was carrying an explosive device planed in her luggage by her boyfriend. Besides, not packing your own bags for an international flight virtually guarantees that you’ll be delayed at the airport. Airline security officials are now supposed to ask if you’ve packed your own baggage. If you say no, they’ll painstakingly search every piece of your luggage by hand.

2. Don’t Take Packages or Luggage From Anyone.
Same rationale as above. Don’t carry on gifts you haven’t wrapped yourself and don’t agree to check or carry on anyone else’s luggage.

3. Don’t Leave Bags Unattended.
Check your luggage as soon as you arrive at the airport, and keep your carry-on bags with you at all times.

4. Avoid Public Areas of Airports.
Don’t spend any more time than necessary at the check-in counter or in public concourses, restaurants and bars. Terrorists who attack airports usually target such areas. As soon as you’re checked in, go through the security-screening station in the departure gate or airline club lounge.

5. Fly Nonstop Whenever Possible.
Nonstop flights are safer than direct or connecting flights because there’s no chance of a terrorist incident on the ground en route.

6. Don’t Sit on the Aisle.
It might seem paranoid to weigh the possibility of a hijacking when choosing a seat. However, from past incidents we know that hijackers heap the most abuse on passengers seated in aisle seats because they’re the easiest targets. If shooting breaks out, passengers in aisle seats are also the most exposed.

7. Don’t Carry Provocative Items.
In the Middle East terrorists have harassed passengers carrying liquor or publications that terrorists considered sexually oriented. That could be nothing more than a copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Terrorists have also searched American passengers to find those carrying government or military identity cards.

8. Know Before You Go.
The State Department issues a “travel advisory” whenever political, social, military or medical events in a foreign country could adversely affect travel there. Advisories are usually issued for a limited time and for specific regions of a country. Travelers with touch-tone telephones can retrieve the full text of any current Travel Advisory by calling the Citizen’s Emergency Center at 202-647-5225.

9. Squawk…Or Take a Walk.
If you’ve boarded a flight you believe is unsafe, request a security check. If you still feel unsafe, walk off the plane. You’ll cause yourself a lot inconvenience and possibly expense, but no one can force you to take a flight you feel is unsafe.

10. Make Your Feelings Known.
Let industry and government officials know you want to make air travel more secure. The Air Transport Association (1709 New York Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006; 202-626-4000) lobbies for the U.S. airline industry. Most of the world’s major airlines are members of the International Air Transport Association (1730 K St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20006; 202-822-3929). In the federal government the agency to contact is the Office of Civil Aviation Security of the Federal Aviation Administration (800 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20591; 202-267-9863).

Shortly after a bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 in December, Gillette recommended that its international travelers fly non-U.S. carriers. The reason was simple: Gillette, like many companies and individuals, believes that flag carriers of neutral countries are “safe” airlines. The “safe airline” theory might once have been valid. But not anymore. In the 30 days after the Pan Am bombing, at least 15 other international flights were delayed or diverted because of bomb threats. There were terrorist threats against airlines owned by the Australian, Indian, French and Scandinavian governments. Planes were threatened at airports in Switzerland, Japan, Greece, Brazil and Italy. Several weeks after Pan Am 103 was destroyed, the Defense Department coincidentally issued a 131-page “guide” to terrorist organizations around the world. Fifty-two terror groups were listed, reflecting a worldwide mix of races, creeds and nationalities.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright © 1989-2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.