Christmas Day Attack Shows Holes In Airline Security

Following the attempted terrorist attack on an airliner headed for Detroit on Christmas Day, Linda Wertheimer talks to Micheline Maynard of The New York Times about why there are still holes in airport security more than eight years after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Travelers around the world are dealing with tighter security measures since the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day. President Obama has ordered a review of air safety regulation. Micheline Maynard has been covering that story for The New York Times. She's the senior business correspondent specializing in aviation. She joins us on the line from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. MICHELINE MAYNARD (Senior business correspondent, The New York Times): Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: You've been covering aviation for a long time. What does this failed bombing tell you about the state of airline security eight years after September 11th?

MS. MAYNARD: I think eight years after September 11th, we have a lot more security in place. You certainly can no longer go to the airport 10 minutes before your flight, run through security, and jump on the plane. That just isn't possible, they won't let you do that anymore. We have more screening, we have more personal checks, we have more vigilance.

WERTHEIMER: But are we better off - safer?

MS. MAYNARD: Well, we don't have some of the recommendations that were in the reports after the September 11th attacks. We still are not matching all passenger names to terrorist watch lists, we don't have some of the technology that was recommended, even eight years ago, and we don't have as much security in cargo areas as people would like to have.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's talk about that. I gather you think there needs to be better communication between foreign governments and the U.S. Why would that help and why is it hard to do?

MS. MAYNARD: Well, all the airline executives that I've interviewed in the past few days have said that is the key thing, communication between the United States, the European community, Asian, etcetera, with checking names.

One of the reasons this is hard to do is that there are huge privacy issues in Europe that have been around since after World War II. The kind of data that the airlines would like to get, the kind of data we'd like our government to collect is the kind of things that people are reluctant to give in Europe. And unless you have that information, it is very hard to check names with those watch lists.

WERTHEIMER: There's been talk, in recent days, about different kinds of scanners at airports - the puffers, the things that appear to just like look something like an x-ray. Would that make a difference?

MS. MAYNARD: Well, I've actually been through the puffer myself. There is one in effect at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The puffer will find things if it's on the surface of your skin. But the puffer can also suck in dust and dirt. And so apparently, when they were first installed, they were failing all the time because they're so sensitive.

The other issue is this idea of the full body scan. And a lot of people are saying, well, if we had a full body scan we would've discovered the device in the suspect's underwear. But those machines are also very, very expensive. And when it comes to aviation, Congress has been reluctant to do more than extend the status quo. Well, there's been $40 billion spent on a lot of these security measures. The FAA budget hasn't even been passed, I don't think, for 2010 -they're just operating on an extension.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think it's possible to fully secure air travel?

MS. MAYNARD: People were joking, yesterday, that we might have to, you know, travel wrapped in bubble wrap and duct tape, or even naked. And I am not sure you can, 100 percent, secure the system. Because if you look at what happened this week, this gentleman apparently used a syringe. And the syringe is legal to go on an airplane. So you could take things that are legal to go on an airplane and still come up with mischief.

WERTHEIMER Thanks very much.

MS. MAYNARD: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Micheline Maynard is a senior business correspondent for The New York Times.

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