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Pilots, Senators criticize air and rail security

(Reuters circulated the following story by Deborah Charles on March 10.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A pilot group gave the U.S. government failing grades on Thursday on measures from screening airport employees to defending planes from missiles, despite large amounts of money spent after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The government's efforts on another mode of transport -- rails -- also came under attack by Democratic lawmakers who said security was underfunded and incomplete one year after deadly train bombings in Madrid.

The Coalition of Airline Pilots Association gave "F" grades to the government in screening employees and cargo, high-tech credentialing of crew members, self-defense training for crew and the plan for countering shoulder-fired missiles.

"This is not a very pretty report card and the American public should be very concerned," said Jon Safley, president of the trade group. "Our government has yet to fill gaps we as pilots see as we continue to fly the American public day in and day out.

The group's Aviation Security Report Card gave the federal government average to failing grades in over a dozen subject areas. There were two bright spots: bag screening and reinforcing cockpit doors on commercial airplanes.

In a separate news conference, three Democratic senators blasted the Bush administration for failing to properly secure the nation's railways, one year after al Qaeda bombed Madrid trains and killed 191 people.

"Quite frankly nothing has been learned by this administration based on what happened in Madrid," said Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden. "This is a disaster waiting to happen.

Biden and U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Tom Carper of Delaware said more money needed to be dedicated to rail security. They said since Sept. 11, 2001, the administration has spent $24 billion to boost aviation security but had invested less than $450 million on passenger rail security.

"Terrorists ... know we're doing a lot on air security, so the next time they want to hurt somebody they're going to look at the rails," said Schumer. "They did it in Madrid."

But the pilots said even though large amounts of money had been spent on aviation security since Sept. 11, 2001, hijack attacks, there were still gaping holes.

Transportation Security Administration officials did not return calls seeking comment on the pilots' report card or the senators' criticism of rail security.

The pilots' group said that while screening of airline passengers and their bags had improved since Sept. 11, screening of ramp employees and cargo was still lacking.

"This is a glaring deficiency that could easily allow a terrorist to place bombs or weapons aboard one of our airplanes," Safley said.

"One level of security must apply to protect the American public," said Safley, whose group represents about 22,000 pilots from American Airlines, United Parcel Service, Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways .

Perimeter security of airports was inconsistent around the country, he said. Airplanes are vulnerable to shoulder-fired missile attacks and the government has done little to respond to the threat, Safley said.

The Department of Homeland Security is studying how to adapt anti-missile technology to commercial airliners.

The pilots' group cited poor sharing of information on potential threats to aircraft and said airlines did not share the crucial information with their captains because the government had not mandated it.

"Today I personally challenge the TSA to fix this problem," said Safley. "This is clearly a no-brainer.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

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