Air security tighter, but gaps remain

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Flanked by a pair of shimmering passenger jets, President Bush led a patriotic rally outside a hangar at O'Hare International Airport about two weeks after last year's terrorist attacks, assuring travelers that it was safe to "get on board and do your business around the country."

The event drew cheers from an emotional crowd of airline employees and their families. But the president's promise of sweeping new security enhancements, and his admonition that the terrorists would win if Americans stopped flying, failed to resonate. Travelers stayed home. One in four still hasn't returned.

Despite $3 billion for additional security, a series of deadline-laden fixes ordered by Congress and the White House to protect airports and passengers is far from complete.

Aviation security is tighter than before, but airports and airplanes remain highly vulnerable targets.

The FBI and CIA now provide airlines with no-fly lists, designed to prevent people on the CIA's watch list of known terrorists from slipping onto passenger planes, as Mohamed Atta and other hijackers did last Sept. 11.

Yet undercover investigators still smuggle weapons through airports at alarming rates. Hundreds of airport workers with special access to airplanes and other secured areas are still arrested for using phony identification to get jobs.

Passengers and luggage are screened by a rookie federal airport security workforce, often with 1950s-era technology. And advances in passenger-profiling techniques, essential to identifying potentially threatening individuals, are far behind schedule.

The Bush administration's top aviation security official told Congress on Tuesday that a year-end baggage-screening deadline will be missed at up to 35 airports, including some major hubs. Those airports will rely on bomb-sniffing dogs and hand searches of luggage instead of explosives-detection technology.

"If I thought the skies were safe, I would not support this bill," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a gun-control advocate, said after a lopsided 87-6 Senate vote last week permitting pilots to carry guns. The House passed similar legislation in July, marking an about-face in sentiment that the war against terrorism is already lost if a cockpit shootout is necessary to stop a hijacker.

The interim results of the security upgrades are precisely what public officials, airline executives and airport experts had hoped to avoid: a patchwork system riddled with weak links.

"The new security measures in place may stop emotionally disturbed people, like the guy who broke through a cockpit door and was knocked out by a pilot with a crash ax. But there are still infinite ways for sophisticated terrorists to violate security," said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

"We are still trying to rebound from the failure of intelligence on Sept. 11. Until we generate the data and get it to the people who can act on it in a timely way, you are flying blind and playing a guessing game."

Slipping through security

The recent experience of Timothy Norris highlights a few of the failings in the revamped security and screening system.

Norris, 36, a long-haul trucker, had not been home to North Carolina for six weeks. So when his rig broke down Aug. 30 in Chicago, he went to Midway Airport and bought a Southwest Airlines ticket to Raleigh.

Norris invited suspicion, although unintentionally. He bought a one-way ticket at the last minute and paid with cash--all common ploys among passengers who wish to avoid being tracked. The government's computerized profiling program, known as CAPPS, automatically pegged Norris as a "selectee." Selectees are considered higher-risk travelers because too little is known about them to determine if they are safe to fly, or the background check raises concern.

After buying his ticket, Norris rode down the escalator to the main security checkpoint at Midway, passed through the metal detector, picked up his carry-on bag after it was X-rayed and walked to his departure gate.

But before boarding, he was pulled aside for a second search, possibly randomly but more likely because of the "S's" at the top of his boarding pass. They were signals from CAPPS--the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System--to alert security checkers throughout the airport that Norris warranted a second search. His belongings were inspected again, then Norris took his seat on the plane.

While unpacking his bag at home, Norris, an avid fisherman, discovered his 12-inch-long filleting knife inside his carry-on. He was shocked.

"I'd welcome the extra security if it really made me more secure," said Norris, who reported the incident to the Transportation Security Administration and called the Tribune. "It makes me nervous about flying when the screeners can't find a knife that's capable of being used to cut somebody's head off."

A spokesman for the security agency said rules prohibit discussion of individual passenger complaints. Still, Norris' story echoes many other calls to the Tribune over the last year from airline customers who unwittingly carried dangerous items onto aircraft. The transportation inspector general this year found that 70 percent of knives and about one-third of guns were still getting through checkpoints during undercover tests.

The security agency, created in November, is replacing private screeners, who are generally blamed for past security lapses, with up to 54,000 federal employees. The agency is simultaneously trying to craft a 21st Century transportation security system that will keep ahead of threats.

Most of the security screeners are supposed to be on the job by Nov. 19. The agency, however, has had trouble recruiting qualified applicants in major urban areas such as Chicago, New York and Boston, slowing efforts to fill the positions.

Federal screeners, who are better paid and receive more training than the private screeners, were deployed at 93 of the nation's 429 commercial airports as of Tuesday, leaving the security agency the task of hiring and training more than 25,000 passenger and baggage screeners in several months.

"The TSA has been working its butt off, but the difficulty in hiring and training people suggests to me they are not really hiring any better screeners than those employed by the contract companies hired by the airlines," said Robert Baker, who retired in May as vice chairman of American Airlines and served on a White House rapid-response aviation security team created after Sept. 11.

Smaller haystack

The government's airport screening procedures generally treat most of the 600 million airline passengers each year as equal risks, and critics say the practice amounts to a needle-in-the-haystack search. They say the solution is to shrink the haystack.

Screeners at various points in the airport security net will someday run passengers' boarding passes through a bar-code reader that will display a risk assessment. A red indicator will prompt the screener to interrogate the traveler, looking for behavioral or emotional oddities, and to recheck carry-ons. A yellow indicator will require less intense scrutiny, and a green symbol will indicate the traveler is good to go.

The federal government had hoped to deploy a more powerful version of the CAPPS profiling system by the first anniversary of the attacks. But it now appears the system won't be fully in place for months or years. Beyond that, the specter of Big Brother having access to detailed information about airline customers has raised privacy concerns among civil liberties groups.

The CAPPS II screening program is an effort to link government and other public databases, marking the first time information about every airline customer will be shared. Some of the Sept. 11 terrorists were known to U.S. immigration officials, but officials acknowledge that records weren't passed along to other government agencies or to the airlines.

Under CAPPS II, supercomputers will search thousands of databases--including those at the FBI, the CIA, the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as well as employment, financial and travel records--to provide screeners with a risk level for each passenger, based on the red-yellow-green system.

The information, combined with a behavioral profile that generates predictions based on the data, will instruct checkpoint staff whether further security is warranted.

The success of CAPPS II will depend on help from the Homeland Security Department, which is not up and running yet. Until then, a strong emphasis will remain on checking bags and patting down travelers for weapons.

Some aviation watchdogs said the transportation security agency should concentrate its limited resources on finding weapons at airports.

"We need more explosives-detection machines before we need this new intelligence apparatus," said Bob Monetti, who lost his son in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988. "It's still too easy to get a bomb onto an airplane."

Improving baggage checks

Congress has mandated that starting Dec. 31, all checked baggage--1.5 billion pieces a year--must be screened by explosives-detection systems.

But there aren't enough of the $1 million machines to spread around the country, Congress has balked at the cost, and many airports lack space for the SUV-size devices unless they tear down walls and reinforce floors. Also, the machines are slow and produce false alarms about 30 percent of the time.

The security agency also must hire and train more than 22,000 federal baggage screeners. Only a few hundred have been hired because the agency is focusing first on staffing the passenger checkpoints.

Some public officials acknowledge that the deadlines for improving aviation security were not realistic. More than 130 U.S. airports have called for an extension of the baggage-screening deadline, but so far top administration officials won't yield.

"Most of the people in the [Bush] administration understand the danger of sacrificing far better security by imposing artificial deadlines," said an official in the Department of Transportation. "They know the screening equipment being acquired will be outdated in a short time. But they are politically gun-shy."

The new baggage-screening system at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, operating behind the scenes in a terminal that opened this year, is meant to serve as a model for the nation's large airports.

Here's how it should work: Once a checked bag is placed on a conveyor belt behind the ticket counter, it passes through an explosives scanner in the baggage-sorting room, not to be touched by a human hand again until aircraft loading.

Here's how it actually works: A quarter of the time the explosives testing generates inconclusive results. Security screeners often must jimmy suitcase locks and search contents to resolve a false alarm.

"We stick a tag on the bag expressing our apologies, explaining it's a consequence of higher security," said Dirk McMahon, senior vice president of customer service at Northwest Airlines. "Still, nobody likes to have the lock on their suitcase broken."

The much smaller Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the first U.S. airport to screen 100 percent of checked baggage. A $50 million airport renovation several years ago was designed to treat travelers to a visual day at the beach, with a spacious new lobby bathed in sand tones and blue carpeting with wavy highlights to symbolize Lake Michigan. But six explosives-detection devices now obscure the ticket counter and take up 30 percent of the lobby.

The airport handles about 165 flights a day, far fewer than a major hub, but officials fear these machines and security precautions will cause huge passenger backups that spread outdoors over the winter and spring holiday travel seasons.

"It was a lot prettier building before the machines were installed. And it's not user-friendly now," said James Koslosky, the airport's director. "Some people think the security is overkill."

Experts predicted that major coastal airports, including those in Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle, would each need up to 100 of the explosives detectors. Because most passengers through O'Hare begin their travels at another airport, officials originally estimated 40 to 50 of the devices would be needed.

But the security agency lowered its assessment, determining that the nation's airports would need 1,100 devices instead of more than 2,000. The O'Hare estimate was revised to 24.

Yet only about 700 machines are likely to be deployed by the year-end deadline, Alexis Stefani, an assistant inspector general in the Department of Transportation, told Congress this summer. Similarly, James Loy, head of the security agency, said more time will be needed to screen 100 percent of checked luggage at all airports.

So far, there are eight devices at O'Hare, and officials are struggling to fit the devices into cramped passenger terminals.

As many as 35 airports, including some of the nation's largest, won't meet the baggage-screening deadline, Loy told the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. He declined to identify the airports, but committee members said the group includes Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and three of California's largest airports.

Expect delays

The security agency's alternative strategy, a mix of explosives-detection technologies and labor-intensive bag-search procedures, is much less efficient and more prone to error.

Federal security officials say the interim procedures are likely to rely on baggage screeners and equipment at every airline ticket counter. The plan could result in horrendous delays because screeners would be required to open large volumes of bags and use a swabbing device that probes for traces of explosive chemicals.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group, thinks lines at airport ticket counters could extend to the sidewalks.

He said he will not be traveling Dec. 31.

"If people are worried about recovering from their hangovers after drinking too much on New Year's Eve, it'll be nothing compared to the hangovers felt by passengers trying to get through airport security," Stempler said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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