Tech may tighten air travel

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 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 words.

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 Department 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 for sure what was going on inside an airliner, he said.

And automated systems could enable ground-based pilots to take control of planes, in much the same way that ground-based controllers fly military spy drones today. Such a system could prevent hijackers from using airliners as strike weapons, Nelson said. 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.

But technology is only part of the solution to lax airport security, said John Anderson, GAO's director of transportation issues. Other defensive steps should also be considered, such as "hardening" cockpits of airliners to make them able withstand to hijack attempts. Perhaps more important may be upgrading the caliber of airport security personnel, Anderson said. Low pay causes rampant turnover—in some locations, airport security personnel make less than fast-food workers, and turnover is 400 percent a year, he said.

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