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Wednesday, September 12, 2001 - 01:53 a.m. Pacific

Lax airport security usual in U.S.

By James Neff
Seattle Times investigations editor

Yesterday's terrifying breaches of security four commercial jets from three busy U.S. airports hijacked in less than an hour sounded the alarm that perhaps no airport is safe from determined attackers.

Although the nation had not suffered a domestic hijacking in 10 years, potentially deadly weaknesses in U.S. airport security have been known and uncorrected for years, according to government reports, industry critics and security professionals.

Time and again, investigators for the General Accounting Office (GAO), the federal watchdog agency, have issued sharply critical reports about the failures of airport personnel to prevent attackers from bringing guns, knives and other weapons onto aircraft.

Only two years ago, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agents breached security at eight major airports and boarded aircraft 117 times out of 173 attempts, or 68 percent of the time. Mostly, they merely followed airport or airline employees through doors without being challenged.

Reports indicated attackers on yesterday's flights overpowered airline staffs with knives.

Such security problems stem from a uniquely American system of letting airlines pay for and be responsible for security, according to the GAO. The commercial airlines in turn hire private contractors to provide security.

Security at U.S. airports is among the most lax in the world, said Charles LeBlanc, managing director of Houston-based Air Security International. European nations "perceive the problems a little bit differently than we do. They've been dealing with terrorism for 20-plus years."

In most cases, the uniformed workers at domestic-airport checkpoints have little training, with as few as eight classroom hours and 40 hours on the job, and are paid little more than minimum wage to start. They don't stay on the job for long, either. Their turnover rates at large airports average 126 percent annually, according to the GAO.

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the turnover rate for screeners in 1999 was 140 percent, significantly higher than the national average but far lower than the 207 percent yearly turnover rate at Boston's Logan International Airport, where two flights were hijacked yesterday.

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, has been sounding an alarm over airport security for a decade. Yesterday, she said the coordinated attack the four flights were scheduled to take off within 36 minutes of each other was "without a doubt an inside job" by terrorists who infiltrated airport security companies.

The FAA does not require full background checks or polygraph examinations of security workers, Schiavo said, a flaw she tried to correct during her years in the Clinton administration and the first Bush administration.

The airline industry has argued that it cannot afford the $10 billion cost of high security: tighter screening and longer training of employees; better wages; and X-raying and matching all luggage to ticketed passengers.

Although there is no evidence that yesterday's attackers masqueraded as law-enforcement agents, that possibility has been identified in investigations at airports in the past.

Last year, GAO investigators with false law-enforcement credentials easily bypassed security at two commercial airports and 19 federal buildings without being checked.

In June 2000, the FAA ordered airlines and their security firms to check the credentials of all law-enforcement agents at checkpoints, but security workers said they lacked the ability to identify false credentials. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation resisted the GAO's efforts to tighten screening, saying it was impractical.

Currently, police and federal agents who travel with weapons must fill out forms at ticket counters when they check in. At security checkpoints, airport police check and record their credentials. But their carry-on bags are not checked. Jane Heffner, spokeswoman for the Seattle office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said that, after identifying herself as a federal agent, she was allowed on board many times without having her carry-on bag screened.

The FAA each year cites airlines thousands of times for security lapses. "It's considered a way of life for the airlines," Schiavo said. "They get fined and consider it a cost of doing business."

This summer, for example, the FAA proposed fining American Airlines $99,000. Airline employees improperly transported unaccompanied bags on five flights, failed to perform a passenger identification check on two flights and failed to ask appropriate security questions regarding checked bags on two flights, the FAA said. One of the flights started at Logan and another at Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C.

Once past security, a hijacker with a modicum of training could easily redirect an aircraft, experts said.

"All they probably would have had to do is punch a couple of numbers or a name into the airplane's navigation system," said Bill Hubbard, a Seattle-based pilot for Northwest Airlines.

Two Boeing 757s and two 767s were hijacked yesterday.

Although such aircraft are highly sophisticated, Hubbard said, takeoffs and landing are by far the most difficult part of flying the planes. Once airborne, he said, the planes' navigational and autopilot systems do much of the work.

Hubbard theorized that the hijackers could have punched in the four-digit codes for airports near their targets, such as LaGuardia in New York, to get the planes into the appropriate area. If they had the specific latitude and longitude for the World Trade Center or for the Pentagon, the planes could have flown directly at their targets on their own.

"Just about anybody could be trained in a day and a half to do that," Hubbard said. Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Kelleher, David Heath, David Bowermaster and Justin Mayo contributed to this report. James Neff can be reached at 206-464-2285 or jneff@seattletimes.com.

Copyright 2001 The Seattle Times Company

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Air security fails

In a few stark moments Tuesday, questions raised for years about the vulnerability of the nation's air-security system took on deadly urgency. Minutes apart, hijackers breached security on four huge passenger jets departing three major American airports. With good reason, America's confidence in safe skies was shattered.

While investigators scramble to determine precisely how terrorists slipped through the X-ray equipment, screeners and ID checks at airports in Boston, Washington and Newark, questions are also being raised about whether failures in the airport security system overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the industry contributed to the disaster. The most damning charge is that federal officials received ''credible evidence'' a month ago of a planned terrorist strike at U.S. airports.

That adds to the obvious security gaps that exist 12 years after the terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Among the most serious problems:

* During two brief test periods in recent years, four passengers passed through security and onto planes with loaded guns, only to be caught on connecting flights, Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO) found. Twice, simulated explosive devices passed through checkpoints and onto planes.

* Tests run by government watchdogs show it is easy to penetrate airport security. Inspectors were able to breach secure areas at eight airports; 12 times they were seated on planes ready for departure.

* The X-ray screeners who make up the front line of airport security are often paid less than workers at the airports' fast-food eateries, resulting in high turnover and a disgruntled workforce.

* While passengers must present photo identification when they pick up boarding passes, there is nothing to prevent them from handing the pass off to someone else. Some pilots have long sought an ID check when passengers actually board.

Tuesday's tragedy also raised questions about security once a plane is in the air. How long did air traffic controllers know the planes were seriously off course? Did they notify law enforcement authorities?

After any dangerous breach comes recrimination and promises of change. When several passengers stormed cockpits last year, there were calls for reinforced cockpit doors. But as memories of the attacks faded, so did any chance for change. The excuses? Too expensive or too cumbersome.

Certainly, increased security will be expensive and time-consuming. Americans could lose some of the cheap, fast service they demand, and perhaps they will balk. But now they will have no choice.

No system can prevent all breaches, but if deterrence is the best defense, then respect for the system's ability to catch potential troublemakers is its most important asset. It will take many years to repair the damage done Tuesday. The FAA must start today.

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