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America’s Turbulent Airways

Author: Eben Kaplan
November 19, 2007

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Before they can mash the potatoes this Thanksgiving, an estimated 27 million (AP) Americans will have to board an airplane. In what has become an unsavory holiday tradition, many of these passengers will endure long lines, delayed flights, and maddening security screenings. At a time of year when he would usually be pardoning a turkey, President Bush sought to lessen the traffic jam with an announcement that he would make military airspace available to civilian aircraft during the holiday travel rush. Why has flying become such a nightmare? Certainly heightened security may chafe nerves, but lines at checkpoints are only one piece of the puzzle. Add to the mix busy runways, crowded airspace, overbooked flights, and an airline industry under financial duress, and a fuller picture of air travelers’ plight begins to take shape. As Fareed Zakaria notes in Newsweek International, foreign visitors face an even more daunting gauntlet.

At the nation’s fifty largest airports, passengers on average require a mere twelve minutes to pass through security (USAToday). However, over the last year, some passengers in New York and Denver waited upwards of two hours to clear a checkpoint (MSNBC). Worse than the wait is the reality that airport screening fails to keep harmful items off airplanes. Just this month the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told Congress, government investigators have repeatedly smuggled simple bomb-making materials through airport checkpoints. Then again, security screening isn’t an airport’s only line of defense. George Naccara, director of security at Boston’s Logan airport, explains that multiple layers of security help to protect passengers. This includes everything from intelligence operations to hardened cockpit doors to special security officers who are trained to detect suspicious behavior in passengers. Still, the security checkpoint will remain the vanguard of airport security for some time to come. In a recent Podcast, Dennis Treece, who helps review new technologies for the Massachusetts Port Authority, describes the checkpoint of the future as sensor-lined hallway through which passengers will walk with bags in hand. This new Backgrounder examines the extent to which new technologies can bolster homeland security.

In addition to security, the growing number of people taking to the skies has taxed the air traffic control system. This reached a critical point last June when cascading computer failures (AP) caused massive delays. John S. Carr, former president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told Congress such failures are not only inconvenient, they also compromise passenger safety (PDF). Some stress on the system might be eliminated by rerouting antiquated flight paths (NYMag), but ultimately, the air traffic system needs an upgrade. The GAO calls modernization efforts an “enormously complex undertaking” (PDF), and completion of such an overhaul may still be ten years off. Meanwhile, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters has proposed “congestion pricing,” a system of charging airlines extra fees for flying through crowded areas at times when demand is highest.

Decaying critical infrastructure across the nation—including the air traffic control system—has left the United Statesa “brittle nation,” according to Stephen Flynn, a CFR senior fellow for national security studies. In a new Podcast, Flynn says the next president should focus homeland security efforts on rebuilding such systems to make them more resilient. For travelers who can’t wait, the Transportation Security Administration offers tips to help passengers prepare to pass through security screening, while Flightstats.com offers up-to-date information on delays and security wait times.

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