The event drew cheers from an emotional crowd of airline employees and their families. But the president's promise of sweeping new security enhancements, and his admonition that the terrorists would win if Americans stopped flying, failed to resonate. Travelers stayed home. One in four still hasn't returned.
Aviation security is tighter than before, but airports and airplanes remain highly vulnerable targets.
The FBI and CIA now provide airlines with no-fly lists, designed to prevent people on the CIA's watch list of known terrorists from slipping onto passenger planes, as Mohamed Atta and other hijackers did last Sept. 11.
Yet undercover investigators still smuggle weapons through airports at alarming rates. Hundreds of airport workers with special access to airplanes and other secured areas are still arrested for using phony identification to get jobs.
Passengers and luggage are screened by a rookie federal airport security workforce, often with 1950s-era technology. And advances in passenger-profiling techniques, essential to identifying potentially threatening individuals, are far behind schedule.
The Bush administration's top aviation security official told Congress on Tuesday that a year-end baggage-screening deadline will be missed at up to 35 airports, including some major hubs. Those airports will rely on bomb-sniffing dogs and hand searches of luggage instead of explosives-detection technology.
"If I thought the skies were safe, I would not support this bill," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a gun-control advocate, said after a lopsided 87-6 Senate vote last week permitting pilots to carry guns. The House passed similar legislation in July, marking an about-face in sentiment that the war against terrorism is already lost if a cockpit shootout is necessary to stop a hijacker.
The interim results of the security upgrades are precisely what public officials, airline executives and airport experts had hoped to avoid: a patchwork system riddled with weak links.
"The new security measures in place may stop emotionally disturbed people, like the guy who broke through a cockpit door and was knocked out by a pilot with a crash ax. But there are still infinite ways for sophisticated terrorists to violate security," said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
"We are still trying to rebound from the failure of intelligence on Sept. 11. Until we generate the data and get it to the people who can act on it in a timely way, you are flying blind and playing a guessing game."
Slipping through security
The recent experience of Timothy Norris highlights a few of the failings in the revamped security and screening system.
Norris, 36, a long-haul trucker, had not been home to North Carolina for six weeks. So when his rig broke down Aug. 30 in Chicago, he went to Midway Airport and bought a Southwest Airlines ticket to Raleigh.
Norris invited suspicion, although unintentionally. He bought a one-way ticket at the last minute and paid with cash--all common ploys among passengers who wish to avoid being tracked. The government's computerized profiling program, known as CAPPS, automatically pegged Norris as a "selectee." Selectees are considered higher-risk travelers because too little is known about them to determine if they are safe to fly, or the background check raises concern.
After buying his ticket, Norris rode down the escalator to the main security checkpoint at Midway, passed through the metal detector, picked up his carry-on bag after it was X-rayed and walked to his departure gate.
But before boarding, he was pulled aside for a second search, possibly randomly but more likely because of the "S's" at the top of his boarding pass. They were signals from CAPPS--the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System--to alert security checkers throughout the airport that Norris warranted a second search. His belongings were inspected again, then Norris took his seat on the plane.
While unpacking his bag at home, Norris, an avid fisherman, discovered his 12-inch-long filleting knife inside his carry-on. He was shocked.