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3rd Risk Warning for LAX in 3 Years

Times Staff Writer

Security experts released their third warning in as many years Friday that passengers in line in lobbies and on sidewalks at Los Angeles International Airport are vulnerable to luggage or car bomb attacks.

They also recommended, for the second time, that airlines add ticket agents and the federal Transportation Security Administration hire more screeners to speed travelers to secure gate areas. “The crowded public areas at LAX continue to be an attractive target for terrorist bombs,” Rand Corp. researchers wrote in a strongly worded, 64-page report commissioned by Los Angeles World Airports.

“Unfortunately, two categories of vulnerability at LAX have not changed,” the study’s 13 authors found. “First, the terminals are still overcrowded at times that are easily predictable by a terrorist. Second, there is nothing to stop or deter a terrorist from driving a large truck or car bomb into the” central terminal area.

The Santa Monica think tank urged the city to build permanent checkpoints at the airport’s six entrances to reduce the risk of car-bomb attacks -- a proposal it originally made in 2004.

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Security advocates expressed frustration at the findings and insisted that airport officials quit studying risks and take action.

“To me this is ‘Get rid of the damn lines,’ part three,” said City Councilman Jack Weiss, who sits on the council committee that oversees the airport agency. “This is not the Manhattan Project. All LAX, the airlines and the TSA need to do is hire a handful of extra staffers.”

Even though officials have spent $175 million to fortify LAX since Sept. 11, 2001, the airport is still considered the state’s top terrorist target.

It also has been singled out in the past: Al Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam planned to attack LAX on New Year’s Eve 1999 by “placing bombs in four luggage carts and exploding them simultaneously in four different terminals,” Rand wrote.

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In Friday’s study, Rand rebutted letters issued by airport officials last spring that said it would cost too much for airlines to add agents at LAX and for the city to staff permanent vehicle checkpoints. Researchers reiterated that these measures were the quickest and cheapest ways to protect passengers.

The study also found that one suggestion -- adding polyester film to oversized windows in nine terminals that face the airport’s horseshoe-shaped roadway -- would not add much protection.

That is because about 85% of those windows are tempered glass, analysts found, which is designed to break under pressure into little nuggets that are unlikely to cause major injuries or deaths. The remaining 15%, or 20,000 square feet, of windows that front the Tom Bradley International Terminal are laminated with layers of security film between sheets of glass.

Rand researchers found that if a 1,000-pound car bomb in a sport utility vehicle were detonated in front of Terminal 6, glass would shatter throughout the airport, but the glass probably would not cause many casualties. Deaths would occur as far as 500 feet from the blast -- up to halfway across the central terminal area.

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“There would be a high number of deaths inside the terminal from structural failure and falling debris,” they wrote. “Those who survive would be sprayed with small bits of broken tempered glass from the windows.”

The finding is a setback for politicians who hoped reinforcing the airport’s windows would be a quick fix to protect crowds. Instead, they still face the intractable problem of shortening lines even as traffic grows at the world’s fifth-busiest airport.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who promised reinforced windows at LAX during his campaign last year, said in a statement that he has asked airport officials “to immediately consider the recommendations.”

At LAX, officials said they have made significant progress in shortening lines. They opened 21 additional security checkpoint lanes in the last three years, reducing the average wait during busy periods from 16 minutes to 11, according to the TSA.

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Airlines said wait times at ticket counters also have decreased as passengers became more comfortable with automated check-in machines and learned to print boarding passes at home.

Carriers dispute Rand’s findings that adding several ticket agents during busy periods would significantly reduce lines.

Lines worsened at LAX when security was tightened after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and explosives-detection machines reduced space in some terminal lobbies by as much as 40%. Airport officials expect shorter lines by 2009 after the truck-sized machines are removed and placed in a new, $400-million baggage system.

Under its $900,000 contract with the airport agency, Rand will complete additional LAX fortification studies by this fall, including a plan “to motivate airlines to help reduce crowding in terminals.”

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It will assess the “acceptable density” of passengers in terminal lobbies and research how vehicle checkpoints can be staffed affordably and which technologies work to screen cars quickly.

The forthcoming studies drew criticism Friday.

“LAX needs immediate security measures, not another eight months of studying 3-year-old recommendations,” Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) said in a statement. “The victims of Hurricane Katrina will tell you that knowing what’s coming matters much less than what steps are taken to mitigate the impact.”


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