How good is the U.S. no-fly list of terrorist suspects and the airlines charged with helping to implement it? So good the system held up the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy when he was trying to board a flight, but didn't stop the prime suspect in this week's failed Times Square bombing from getting on an Emirates Airline plane at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The good news is the suspect - a U.S. citizen attempting to flee to his native Pakistan by way of Dubai - was pulled off the plane just minutes before it took off from JFK. So, the system worked - kind of - as the Obama administration is trying to convince everyone it did. But, why was the suspected bomber - whose name was placed on a no-fly list hours before he boarded his late-night flight - allowed to pass through security and get on the plane in the first place? U.S. officials say it's because Emirates employees at JFK airport didn't check his name against the updated list.
This episode raises reasonable doubts about how hard Emirates tried to comply with the no-fly list, a deeply flawed but necessary tool to safeguard safety in the skies. Last year, I flew on Emirates - a glitzy, high-profile carrier fueled by petrodollars and backstopped by the government of Dubai - and found it modern and stylish but cold. Cabin crew are, by the airline's own account, a young, attractive, international bunch selected in large part because of the perceived glamour they bring to the flying experience. That's just so perfect for a magazine layout - maybe less so for providing warm customer service or being sensitive to security needs.
According to media accounts, Emirates didn't respond to requests for specific answers to hard questions about the Times Square suspect, but did issue a general statement saying it's always attentive to security and is cooperating fully with investigators. Well, that's fine, but why didn't airline workers at the airport check this special traveler's name against the no-fly list, and why didn't his purchase of a one-way ticket - with cash, no less - raise alarms?
This points to a big flaw in the system, nearly nine years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States with hijacked jetliners. At present, U.S. authorities depend on airlines to help implement the system on international flights. The U.S. government has not taken over the program, as some have called-for. A federal takeover won't be perfect, either, but it's a thought.
So, two cheers for Washington, and for Emirates. They apprehended a wanted man, but he nearly got away. And in coming close to slipping the dragnet, he exposed a glaring weakness in aviation security in a tense and dangerous time.