The USA and other governments must bear the cost of a tougher security regime - not the beleaguered airlines

Hollywood scriptwriters have imagined similar scenarios: an entire city, an entire civilisation under threat from crazed terrorists. Only on 11 September 2001, there was no Bruce Willis action hero to save the day. This time, the events on the screen - for many unfolding in real time - were real, and so awful that most of us, a week later, are still struggling to take them in. There are images - office workers tumbling from top floors of the twin towers, family snapshots of children aboard the doomed flights, the grotesque remains of one of the world's most famous landmarks - that will haunt us for years.

The public and politicians want answers: who is to blame? The crimes clearly could not have been committed without terrorists - at time of writing, almost certainly Islamic fundamentalists funded by Osama bin Laden - bent on sacrificing their own lives to commit one of the biggest single acts of mass murder in history. One of the priorities for the USA and its allies will now be to hunt down, punish and emasculate those responsible for last week's attacks.

But fingers are being pointed elsewhere: at America's intelligence services, who apparently knew nothing of the terrorists' plans; at the architects and operators of the World Trade Center, where thousands of people were trapped as the building collapsed; and, inevitably, at the airline industry itself for allowing a handful of fanatics, armed only with small knives, to almost simultaneously take over four airliners departing from major airports and slamming three of them into two of America's most important buildings.

Big changes will be demanded in the way US airlines operate. Tighter security on the ground - with a regime at the very least as rigorous as that deployed at UK airports, perhaps even as strict as on flights to and from Israel - is inevitable. Out the door will go the sausage-machine mentality which allows domestic airlines to run tight schedules and passengers to enjoy lax and speedy check-in and security procedures. Airports will have to recruit better-trained and better-paid security personnel and invest in sophisticated surveillance equipment. It is possible this could be achieved through passengers being willing to accept longer check-in periods rather than a reduction in the frequency of take-offs. However, this clearly will impact on an American business culture that permits an executive to check in at the kerbside after taking her children to school, fly from New York to Chicago for a meeting and be home in time to collect them. Other proposals being suggested range from highly likely to the difficult to implement - the outlawing of e-ticketing, restrictions on carry-on luggage, the sealing-off of flight decks, and even armed air marshals on all domestic flights.

No one disagrees that extra security is now essential. The real question is what measures will be effective in countering a new type of terrorist - one that is prepared to kill thousands of innocent civilians and die in the process? Neither the person who planted the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh fitted that bill. As important is the question of who pays? The 1997 Gore Commission was set up after the last wave of panic about airborne terrorism (although TWA 800, which sparked the investigation, ironically turned out to have been probably caused by an electrical fault). Its recommendations were largely ignored by the administration after US airlines resisted changes that would, as they saw it, curb their flexibility and freedom.

Airlines may have been guilty of short-sightedness following Gore, but they cannot be expected to bear the financial brunt of making air travel safer. The likely collapse in passenger confidence resulting from the terrorist attacks, coupled with rising fuel prices, at a time when the US economy is already teetering close to recession, will push many airlines to the brink. Last Thursday, the crisis claimed its first victim when ailing Midway admitted it was not worthwhile trying to re-finance. American and United, whose aircraft were used in the hijacks, also face the spectre of crippling class actions by victims' relatives.

Just as America and its allies have "declared war" on terrorism, governments and taxpayers must be prepared to dig deep to defeat a threat that - as last Tuesday proved - affects not just airlines and the travelling public but the entire civilised world. Governments must take on direct responsibility for air security in the same way as they do for national defence. And if this means armed federal agents checking hand-baggage or travelling on scheduled flights, this is something with which the travelling public will have to learn to live.

Source: Flight International