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11/10/2010
03:55 PM
John Foley
John Foley
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Feds Respond To Air Safety Threats

A series of recent incidents have prompted air transportation officials in the United States to outline new security measures, just as millions of people book flights and begin packing for the Thanksgiving travel rush.

It’s a nerve-racking time for air travelers. The “mystery missile” that appeared off the coast of California this week is the latest in a series of incidents that are cause for alarm. The Department of Homeland Security, the FAA, and the TSA are all taking steps to improve air safety, but there are no fast or easy fixes.

It’s unclear if the projectile spotted on Nov. 8 west of Los Angeles was a missile or something else. Some experts speculate that the plume of smoke recorded by a news helicopter was the vapor trail of a jet. The Department of Defense hasn’t been able to explain it, but a Pentagon official today agreed that it was mostly likely jet vapor, according to CBS News. Either way, unknown objects streaking across the sky can’t be good for air safety or passenger peace of mind.

Less than two weeks ago, U.S. intelligence and Homeland Security officials were scrambling to avoid catastrophe when two homemade bombs -- packaged in printer ink-cartridges and originating in Yemen -- were discovered on cargo flights. London police disclosed today that one of the bombs was timed to explode over the eastern United States. (Notably, the packages were reportedly transported out of Yemen on passenger jets.)

The same day those bombs were discovered, Oct. 29, a man in his early 20s boarded an Air Canada flight in Hong Kong disguised as elderly man. There’s no indication that the man had terrorist intentions (CNN reports he sought refugee protection), but the episode exposed yet another hole in airport security.

Air transportation authorities in the United States are rushing to plug those holes. On Nov. 8, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano outlined a series of measures, including “enhanced screening” and “layered detection,” related to air cargo coming into the U.S. Effective immediately, tone and ink cartridges over 16 ounces are banned from all passenger flights, both in carry-on and checked luggage.

TSA administrator John Pistole recently shared his own list of action items. They include boosting TSA’s counterterrorism capabilities through intelligence and new technologies such as the Advanced Imaging Technology systems -- a.k.a. body scanners -- being deployed in U.S. airports. Of course, body scanners haven’t exactly been a hit with the American public, or pilots or flight attendants for that matter, amid privacy and safety concerns. Earlier this week, John Holden, science advisor to President Obama, released a detailed response to questions over the level of x-ray radiation emitted from the systems.

For its part, the FAA has proposed that new safety management systems be required for commercial airlines. The idea is to develop a formal approach to “managing safety” in the areas of policy, risk management, safety assurance, and promoting safety. The proposal calls on airlines to implement the systems within three years.

It’s almost impossible to discuss air safety without causing some degree of anxiety among the traveling public. The latest “FAA Safety Briefing, a which reports on the general aviation, or small plane, industry, includes articles on “When the best made plans go awry” and “How to survive an aviation emergency.” There’s also a “Top 10” list of causes for fatal accidents in general aviation. Number one: loss of control during maneuvering in flight.

You might think that these close calls in the skies would cause travelers to fly less, but you would be wrong. The Air Transport Association of America forecasts that 24 million people, a 3.5% increase over last year, will travel on U.S. airlines during the extended 12-day Thanksgiving holiday. ATA encourages travelers to pack light, use its mobile app for airport updates, and to leave plenty of time for security screening.

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