Are we doing enough?

While billions of tax dollars are spent beefing up airport security, there are fears that things are still not safe enough. A March 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO, formerly the General Accounting Office) said that there were still problems "hiring, deploying, and training [TSA's] screener workforce. Staffing shortages and TSA's hiring process continue to hinder its ability to fully staff screening checkpoints."

The GAO also noted the extensive delays in the implementation of CAPPS II, which is far behind schedule and doesn't even have date of completion or cost estimates. The GAO report states, "TSA has not fully addressed seven of eight issues identified by Congress as key elements related to the development, operation, and public acceptance of CAPPS II."

The air marshal program also came under fire in the GAO report - the need for many additional marshals resulted in an abbreviated training program, and budget cuts have further crippled the program. A recent investigation by the DHS's inspector general found 753 reports of air marshal misconduct during an eight-month period in 2002, including sleeping and being drunk while on duty.

Finally, many security experts fear there are too many threats that aren't being addressed at all. Many baggage handlers, mechanics and other technicians with access to airplanes are not screened or searched. Handheld surface-to-air rocket launchers are another concern - currently, U.S. aviation has virtually no defense against such an attack.

Air Marshals

If fences and barriers are the first line of defense, the air marshals are the last. If everything else fails and a terrorist still gets onto a flight with a weapon, an armed air marshal can take control of a situation and restrain the attackers. Although the air marshal program has existed since the 1970s, it has never had as high of a profile as it has in the post-9/11 era.

An air marshal is a federal agent disguised to look like regular passenger. Each air marshal is authorized to carry a gun and make arrests. There are not enough air marshals to cover every flight, so their assignments are kept secret. No one knows which passenger is the air marshal, or even if an air marshal is present on the flight at all. Although their exact numbers are kept classified, airline insiders estimate that only five percent of U.S. flights have an air marshal on board. This is still a major increase - in the years before 9/11, a handful of marshals guarded just a few international flights.

In addition to policing the sky, new laws have forced the installation of locks on cockpit doors. This could prevent hijackings by terrorists who are trained to fly passenger jets by keeping them away from the plane's controls.

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