Although Mayor James K. Hahn has said improving security is the most important element of his $9-billion plan to update Los Angeles International Airport, security experts have criticized nearly every aspect of the proposal -- and some suggest LAX might be safer without the upgrade than with it.
Among the cited deficiencies: The security system would rely in part on technology that isn't completely developed or that has failed repeated trials, and it would use several existing methods in ways that could render them ineffective.
In addition, the security component of Hahn's plan is said to be short on detail and to account inadequately for the cost of new safety measures or the manpower necessary to monitor them.
As the City Council begins to review reams of public comment in preparation for its consideration next year of the mayor's plan, known as Alternative D, security concerns will be pivotal.
"This seems to be the weakest link of support for Alternative D," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, whose district includes communities next to the airport. "It's based on security and a whole new security revamp, post-9/11, but there are more questions than answers."
The mayor's office says the security details will be worked out as consultants start preliminary design work on the LAX proposal in the coming months. At 3,500 acres, LAX isn't big enough to handle federal security requirements, and problems can't be fixed by reinforcing concrete and adding impact-resistant glass, Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards said in an interview.
"We simply don't have the space to implement any of the security protocols, so we end up with pylons and checking vehicles out on Century and Sepulveda and it's basically hit and miss," Edwards said. "With this alternative, we will be able to run this airport at maximum capacity at the highest level of security, so when national security levels go from yellow to orange, we don't have to change a thing."
The mayor's plan would dramatically rework LAX by demolishing Terminals 1, 2 and 3, moving two sets of parallel runways farther apart, replacing parking garages with a new terminal complex and building a passenger check-in center near the San Diego Freeway.
Since he introduced his LAX plan two years ago, Hahn has argued that the upgrade is necessary to fortify the airport against terrorist attacks. Security is paramount at the world's fifth-busiest airport, which has been named the state's No. 1 terrorist target by the California attorney general's office. Officials foiled a plot to blow up a terminal at LAX in December 1999, when an Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, was arrested at the Canadian border with a load of explosives in his car trunk.
The bottom line in the debate over the mayor's plan: How much security is enough?
The Rand Corp. fired the opening salvo in May, when it released a report arguing that the proposal would make travelers more vulnerable to attacks. The report, commissioned by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), said that by concentrating people at a new check-in center, the redesign would provide a ready target for luggage bombs, shoulder-fired missiles or chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. City officials have said the remote check-in center is necessary to remove private vehicles -- and thus the threat of car bombs -- from the central terminal area.
To rebut the Rand report, the city's airport agency hired San Diego-based Security Applications International Corp., or SAIC, in June and paid it $248,100 to review Hahn's plan. The assignment involved SAIC, a private firm involved in sensitive security work for the federal government, in a behind-the-scenes debate with Rand, a Santa Monica nonprofit known for its security research.
SAIC concluded that the mayor's proposal would make LAX more secure by dispersing passengers among several remote facilities, including the check-in center, a consolidated rental car facility proposed for a corner of Parking Lot C, and a transportation center that would connect the Green Line to an elevated train near the Century Freeway and Aviation Boulevard.
Rand disagreed and said that the agencies had based their conclusions on different sets of assumptions.
"Their starting point, in terms of threat assessment, seems to be the car bomb.... They don't appear to have gone much beyond that particular threat," said K. Jack Riley, an expert in public safety and justice at Rand and a supervisor of its study. "We looked at a much broader spectrum of threats, both historical and theoretical, in terms of other types of attacks that could plausibly be used in the future."
SAIC has countered that explosives present the greatest threat to LAX, and that attacks using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons are highly unlikely.
In a 40-page report included as an appendix to Hahn's 11-volume airport master plan, SAIC contends that changing the way people reach LAX would help prevent an attack from shutting down the airport.
"Blowing up Level 4 in a parking garage a mile away from the airport will not have the same impact as blowing away 200 people in line in front of Terminal 1," said John E. Hensley, SAIC's corporate vice president.
To better protect people arriving at LAX, SAIC suggested that city officials use various technologies -- including facial-recognition software, license-plate readers and a network of closed-circuit television cameras placed around remote facilities -- to build rings of security around airport facilities so officials would be warned if a terrorist approached.
By the time a terrorist gets to the check-in center, "we've looked at them coming off the freeway, we've looked at them coming into the parking garages," Hensley said. "Then four guys are unloading a large box out of the back of a car and they came in different vehicles and no plate on one of the vehicles -- those are all things that would cause police officers to be launched."
Several local public safety officials have applauded the security component of Hahn's plan.
"The new airport layout decreases the impact and probability of a terrorist action on any one area while allowing multiple levels of security checks," Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca wrote earlier this year in a letter to City Council members. "The rapid movement of passengers ... through the airport entry points protects the vast majority of airport users because only small numbers of people would be clustered in areas where a vehicle explosive device could be delivered."
SAIC has said technology would eliminate the need to hire more security personnel in the long run. But Hahn's plan estimates that the city would need 162 additional airport police and 12 more Los Angeles Police Department officers to protect a greater number of facilities. That projection raised red flags with other city agencies.
"Does the project specify any funding for this increase?" Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton wrote in a comment on the mayor's plan. "Will the new positions be budgeted into the project?"
Some security consultants said the SAIC review was flawed because it relied in part on a facial recognition system that has failed repeated performance trials. SAIC proposed that the technology be included in surveillance cameras that would observe people as they entered LAX facilities and match their faces to a crime database.
The handful of cities that have tested facial recognition, including Tampa, Fla., and Newham, England, recorded no successful matches of people traveling under surveillance cameras with pictures in crime databases, experts said. Separate attempts to test the software in airports also have come up short, they said.
"Every single test done in real-world airports has failed," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It cannot identify the bad guys and it misidentifies good, honest people as bad guys."
Facial recognition systems are easily fooled by subjects who change their appearance by gaining weight, growing beards or wearing sunglasses. Tests show they don't work well in a frenetic airport environment where the lighting is poor and people are in a hurry, experts said.
It's also unlikely that the crime databases used in such systems would include updated photos of terrorists, or those of terrorists bent on carrying out an attack. Only two of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, were known to the CIA and the FBI.
Hensley said that the database administered by the federal government is improving, and that facial recognition systems have been used in London with positive results.
"You can fool it, certainly, but in terms of 'is it getting better?' Yeah," he said. "This stuff is going rapidly forward and, quite frankly, we're looking at a terrorist database, we're not looking for Joe the pickpocket."
SAIC has proposed the use of several security systems in ways that would limit their ability to prevent an attack, consultants contended. For example, SAIC has suggested that the city screen vehicles as they arrive at remote LAX facilities with license-plate readers.
Such a system, used by customs agents as motorists near checkpoints on California's border with Mexico, scans license plates with an infrared beam and runs the numbers through a National Crime Information Center database in a search for stolen vehicles or drivers with arrest warrants.
The technology has helped customs agents "catch a significant number of people who are absconding from the country," said Vincent Bond, public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But at LAX, motorists would be entering remote facilities at varying rates of speed that could destroy the system's ability to prevent an attack, analysts argued.
Hensley disagreed, saying closed-circuit TV cameras would scan license plates when drivers left the freeway, giving officers ample time to apprehend suspects before they entered parking garages at one of the remote facilities.
A second system that critics have said might be compromised if operated as SAIC suggested is the use of magnetometers to check people for metal objects. City officials have proposed using magnetometers to screen passengers in the check-in facility and at remote FlyAway centers. To prevent long lines, SAIC has advised that officials reset the machines at a less sensitive level.
"You can set them to pick up certain ounces of mass ... to pick up a handgun, but not earrings or a belt buckle," Hensley said.
But federal regulations dictate that airports tune their magnetometers to a certain sensitivity, and they may not give Los Angeles officials the leeway to recalibrate those in use at remote facilities. In addition, retuning the devices could lead them to miss potentially lethal objects.
"What they need to do is calibrate these machines so zero metal will pass through them," said Lou Palumbo, director of the Elite Agency, a company that has provided security at the Golden Globe awards. "If I can sneak my belt buckle through and my solid stainless-steel watch, don't they think I can sneak a razor blade through and insert it in a handle when I get on a plane?"
The mayor's office has argued that the level of screening at the check-in center would be higher than security at numerous public venues today. "This is a higher level of security than we demand for malls around the city today, where there are high concentrations of people in small areas," Edwards said.