American Aviation: A System Built for Comfort—Not Safety

Experts say the attacks were made easy by the relaxed nature of U.S. airport security.

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The plan was deceptively simple—and ingenious, some would later say. A handful of men board a plane, easily slipping through security with small plastic-handled knives and box cutters. One of them is a trained pilot. All are prepared to die.

When the plane reaches cruising speed, they attack flight attendants with their knives and draw the pilots out of their cabin. They hold the crew and passengers at bay while one hijacker flies the plane into the World Trade Center. Because the plane was headed cross-country, it is full of fuel. The crash and fireball are horrific.

The ease with which the terrorist attacks occurred may have confounded Americans, but experts say that the scheme was made easy by the relaxed nature of U.S. airport security and the modernization of aircraft. Although a cockpit may look daunting, today's planes are fairly easy to fly. Considerable navigation was involved to fly the planes hundreds of miles to hit their targets. But pilots note that if destination information is entered into the guidance system, planes can fly themselves to their endpoints. Moreover, the terrorists were adept at maneuvering Boeing 757s and 767s—indeed, at least one hijacker on each plane went to a U.S. flight school to obtain a commercial license.

The choice of two flights from Boston's Logan Airport may have been lucky or calculated. The FAA fined Logan $178,000 for 136 security violations from 1997 through 1999. The FAA found that people hired to operate luggage screening devices routinely failed to detect test items, such as pipe bombs and guns. Joe Brinker, 32, of Washington, D.C., who often flies internationally, says he frequently carries a multiuse knife with a 31/2-inch locking blade in his carry-on bag. He has been stopped by security once, he said, and then let through. No wonder. The rules only ban knives with blades longer than 4 inches.

Pilots and crew are trained to try to calm and, often, obey hijackers' commands because the vast majority of hijackings—the last U.S. incident was in 1991—end nonviolently. "For the most part, people didn't get hurt," says Barry Schiff, a retired TWA pilot.

Ben Cox is a Virginia-based pilot trainer who went abroad to certify Osama bin Laden's half-brother Yeslam (who, without referring to Osama, condemned the terrorist attacks) as a Learjet pilot. He says that if the hijackers were qualified pilots, they'd need only 30 to 60 days of big-plane training to become good enough to hit a building.

Once air travel resumes, security will be tighter, the FAA says. Yet even after four hijackings, the airlines are resisting some of the FAA's tougher measures, including a final check with hand wands of passengers at the gate. A government official told U.S. News, "We may have made more progress in getting the airlines to a place they weren't at 24 hours ago," [but] "there's a lot of confusion right now."

Kim Clark, Dana Hawkins, Anna Mulrine, Margaret Mannix, Richard J. Newman, and Jason Manning