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FAA finds many flaws
By STUART LEAVENWORTH and MATTHEW BARROWS THE SACRAMENTO BEE and RUSSELL CLEMMINGS THE FRESNO BEE
By all accounts, it looks like a cartoon bomb: sticks of dynamite attached by colorful wires to an alarm clock, stuffed in a carry-on bag.
At least 36 times since 1996, this type of bomb was carried undetected past airline security at airports in California.
At Sacramento International Airport, the dummy bomb slipped past screeners in June 1999 and November 1997. It went unnoticed nine times at San Jose International Airport, eight times at San Francisco and six times at Los Angeles.
Nearly every week in California, federal undercover agents test whether airline security can prevent bombs, guns and other weapons from being smuggled onto commercial airliners. And according to a review of nearly five years of federal records by the Sacramento and Fresno Bees, the passenger airlines operating in California flunk those tests, on average, every eight days. Locally, however, Modesto Airport and Stockton Metropolitan Airport had no security violations.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration and various politicians have tried to assure nervous travelers that it is still safe to fly.
But the FAA's own data reveals that the security firms hired by airlines have a dismal track record of detecting weapons, some of which are far bulkier -- and deadlier -- than the box cutters and knives that hijackers used to commandeer four airplanes.
From 1996 through mid-2000, undercover inspectors were able to slip dummy bombs, hand grenades, guns and other test objects past security in 215 instances at major airports in California, according to the newspapers' analysis. On dozens of other occasions, FAA inspectors were able to pass through supposedly "secured doors" at airports and sneak undetected onto planes.
The situation was so bad that some former airline security workers now hesitate to board a plane.
"I'm scared to death to fly," said Ruth Scarlett, a former concourse supervisor for a private security firm at Sacramento International Airport.
Contacted this week, airline officials refused to comment on specific situations in which fake bombs, grenades and other weapons got past their checkpoints. They said they are doing everything the federal government requires to keep air travel safe.
"Southwest, in particular, has an excellent safety record and security measures," said Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, which has been cited for a number of recent FAA violations.
If anything, the FAA data understates the full extent of security lapses at airports, say several aviation experts, such as Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Twice in the 1990s, said Schiavo, her office performed spot checks and found that screeners caught only 10 percent of the test weapons in some airports, not 90 percent, as the FAA was reporting. It also found that the FAA would telegraph its inspections by using the same undercover agents, over and over.
"It got to the point where they (the screeners) were saying, 'There's Joe with the gun in the briefcase,' or 'Here comes Suzy with a knife in a knapsack.'" Schiavo said.
At Sacramento International, former security workers say they were often warned of an FAA inspection. When the FAA showed up, security supervisors would contact their counterparts in another terminal, said Shirley Drennan, who worked for Globe Airport Security in 1997. "They would call and say, 'Here they come,'" said Drennan, 60.
Under the FAA's security procedures, airlines are responsible for hiring screening personnel at checkpoints leading to their gates. Typically, the airline with the largest number of gates on a concourse chooses the firm to handle security for that concourse. Because security firms are in tight competition to submit the lowest bids, they usually pay their workers near the minimum wage, while performing minimal training and background checks.
As a result, security specialists say it isn't surprising that screeners fail to detect concealed weapons -- even the FAA's dummy bombs.
"Go into an airport and look at the people doing the screening," said Bill Glover, who runs an airport security firm in Roseville. "These are people who are easily distracted. They are a couple of steps above minimum wage. The turnover is huge."
Two of the biggest carriers in California -- United and Southwest -- had the highest number of cases in which its security personnel failed to detect planted weapons. United's contractors missed weapons 65 times in five years, and paid $183,250 in fines. It was followed by Southwest Airlines, with 43 failures and $114,575 in fines, according to the FAA.
A United Airlines spokeswoman said her airline had complied with all security directives and King, of Southwest Airlines, said the FAA database tells only part of the story, because it doesn't reveal the times screeners successfully detected weapons.
Because of incomplete data, McClatchy Newspapers was unable to rank airports on the overall security record of airlines that operated there. Nonetheless, the data shows a relatively high number of security violations at San Jose, Oakland and Sacramento international airports when compared with their number of passengers.
San Jose, for instance, had 42 instances where security failed to detect a dummy bomb, grenade or other weapon since 1996, nearly as many as LA, which has six times as many boardings. One of the most recent incidents came in May last year, when a dynamite bomb got by a Southwest checkpoint, and the airline was fined $7,000.
In Sacramento, airlines switched from Globe to Olympic Security Systems in late 1999. Since then, the number of violations has dropped somewhat, although the FAA only has partial data for 2000.
"I trust the security system more than than ever," said Mark Vinson, president of Olympic Security, a Seattle-based company. Although his workers earn a starting salary of about $5.75 an hour, he says they have a 90 percent "catch rate" in detecting FAA-smuggled weapons.
Sacramento airport officials, who have no control over the airlines, say they have tried to improve security among their employees.
In the past five years, the FAA has cited the airport's administration for three security violations, including one in which an employee propped open a door that should have been kept locked.
Cheryl Demetriff, a spokeswoman for the airport, said travelers need to keep security concerns in perspective. In recent weeks, many members of Congress and the airlines have called for the government to "federalize" airline security, as many European and Middle Eastern countries do.
"It is important to understand that federal staff at the security checkpoint would not have prevented the disaster of September 11th," said Demetriff. "As far as we know, anything used as a weapon by the terrorists were legal items that passengers were allowed to carry on the planes at that time."
Still, many aviation experts say the holes in U.S. airline security should have been filled long ago, and not just to intercept international hijackers. In 1987, a deranged ex-airline employee named David Burke sneaked a gun through security at Los Angeles International Airport and onto a Pacific Southwest flight. After the plane departed, Burke started shooting and the flight crashed near San Luis Obispo, killing 43 people.
Security measures restored
Over the past two weeks, the FAA has restored some security measures imposed after that incident and many other bombings and hijackings. The restored measures include increased spot hand searches of baggage and the confiscation of all sharp objects, such as scissors and nail files.
Even with the recent crackdown, weapons still get past airline security.
In a well-publicized account out of south Florida last week, a federal investigator conducting his own security test at Miami International Airport carried three knives through a passenger checkpoint without anyone detecting them, according to airport officials.
Last week, Keven MacDonald took a flight from Sacramento International to Ontario. Upon arriving, the school teacher learned that he had absentmindedly carried a 5-inch, serrated steak knife in his carry-on bag.
MacDonald says he is astounded that, two weeks after the worst terrorism in U.S. history, screeners didn't notice and confiscate the knife.
Posted on 09/27/01 05:10:02
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 27, 2001
As long as Jane Garvey remains head of the FAA, nothing positive will happen--unless responsibility for all security procedures are taken away from her.
-- Uncle Fred (email@example.com), September 27, 2001.
Iím not astonished at all. I have done a great deal of travel globally and the abysmal level of U.S. airport security has always been obvious.
As one example, in 1999 I had the personal experience of carrying a suspicious-looking medical device onto a U.S. domestic flight (I deliberately placed it near the top of my bag to facilitate inspection) but the WRONG bag was examined, while I was allowed to pick my bag containing the device off the X-ray conveyor belt and continue on my way. The device had more or less the basic components of a bomb, except for explosives, and surely looked funny on X-ray. But when the ďsecurity personnelĒ didnít find it (after looking in the *wrong bag*) they didnít seem concerned.
And I always have carried (legally) *multiple* sharp objects onto every flight, several more fearsome than box cutters I assure you, and never have I been stopped in the U.S. to see if they fit the (old) legal length limit.
Oh for the days when the security personnel will stop me and say, ďSir, please stop so we may we check your ammunition to be sure you have all ten rounds and that the load is frangible...Ē Not gonna happen it looks like. And thatís one reason why Iíll drive from now on, thank you.
-- Andre Weltman (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 28, 2001.