IT may alter air travel

Electronic technology is poised to change the nature of air travel in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks

Electronic technology is poised to change the nature of air travel in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in which hijacked airplanes plunged into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, security experts say.

Facial-recognition software may be used to compare just-snapped photos of passengers' faces against data banks of digital photos of known or suspected terrorists. Listening devices in ceilings and walls may trigger security alarms at the sound of certain keywords.

Specially trained security personnel stationed at video monitors may watch passengers as they board and take their seats, searching for signs of suspicious activity.

Meanwhile, flight crews may lock themselves into an armored cockpit equipped with emergency controls that permit a ground-based crew to fly and land the aircraft in an emergency. "There will be higher levels of surveillance" and "more stringent searches," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta vowed.

If employed aggressively, technology could make the kind of suicide attacks carried out against the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon almost impossible, said Lawrence Nelson, a video security specialist.

Video cameras and transmitting systems installed inside cabins and cockpits could enable air traffic authorities on the ground to know exactly what was going on inside an airliner, he said.

And automated systems could enable ground-based pilots to take control of planes, much the way ground-based controllers fly military spy drones today. Such a system could prevent hijackers from using airliners as strike weapons, Nelson said. "Sure, it could happen. Will it happen? Who knows?" But the technology exists, and it would cost less per airliner than installing an entertainment system, he said.

Installing more video surveillance cameras and making them more visible are easy and effective first steps, Nelson said. "Cameras seem to make people behave." They also create a visual record, and well-trained observers can use them to spot people exhibiting aberrant behavior, he said.

Expect more use of bomb "sniffers" — electronic sensors able to detect microscopic particles of explosives. Such sniffers are already used at some U.S. airports and have demonstrated a high detection rate, according to the General Accounting Office.

Fifteen months ago, GAO reported to Congress that "serious vulnerabilities in our aviation security system exist and must be adequately addressed." Clearly, they were not, because terrorists were able to simultaneously hijack four airliners Sept. 11 from three separate airports, said John Anderson, GAO's director of transportation issues.

Iris scanners, thumbprint readers and hand scanners may be used to snare terrorists who try to impersonate airport employees or crew members. And new X-ray scanners have been developed to see through clothing, although they raise sensitive privacy questions.

But technology is only part of the solution to lax airport security, Anderson said. Perhaps more important may be upgrading the caliber of airport security personnel. In some locations airport security personnel make less than fast-food workers, he said.

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