September 17, 2001 11:00 pm

Anyone who has traveled on airlines over the past few years probably has noticed that airport security measures are growing more lax in our country and inconsistent between airports. Whether heightened airport security could have prevented last Tuesdays terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., is open to debate. But allowing knives to be taken aboard planes and asking who had packed your bags do not seem like very secure security measures.

Over the past few years, security protocol and standards have seemed to vary between airports. A belt buckle, watch or change that might have made a metal detector go off in one airport might not have in another. An unusual looking but innocent object in a carry-on might have passed through an X-ray machine undetected at one concourse but not at another. The disparities between airport security from one airport to another should have been cause for alarm.

Airport authorities and the FAA arent the only ones who have been remiss when it comes to security. The airlines themselves have seemed more interested in squeezing the most people on board with whatever carry-ons they want. Theyve been ignoring their own standards for carry-ons those little signs and size examples that indicate the carry-on limit. Has anyone ever seen an airline require a passenger to place his carry-on in one of those? As long as there is sufficient underseat and overhead storage, almost anything a passenger wanted to bring on board has been welcome. Probably saves the cost of hiring baggage handlers.

Some passengers bring what appear to be full-size suitcases on wheels of course on the plane. Such a practice saves the travelers time from having to stop at baggage claim. But who knows what could pass through the X-ray machines in all those carry-ons?

America needs to be more stringent at its airports. Passengers need to accept the fact that they are going to have to allow more time for checking in and being checked when they do.

If 19 hijackers got on board airplanes at virtually the same time at several airports in the East a week ago, something is terribly amiss with our airport security system. Maybe officials had been lulled to sleep, since there had not been a hijacking for a decade.

We need to fix our airport security system not only for a month, or a year, or even two years. The measures that are put in place now to heighten security need to stay in place and be rigidly enforced for all time.

As Americans we might not like the infringement on our personal freedoms. But airliners have become a major target and now a weapon of terrorists. The times demand that we change and accept our practices. Not only the safety of the crew and passengers are at stake, but, as we found out last week, the safety of people on the ground is at issue, too.