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Experts Still Find Holes in Airport Security

August 18, 1995

From Atlanta to Houston, airport skycaps now have the added job of looking for suspected terrorists. Meanwhile, unclaimed suitcases sit unattended in many airport baggage-claim areas. And airlines are still not ensuring that people who have checked luggage are boarding the plane.

The nation’s airports have been on an elevated alert for a week now, the first time their security status has been raised since the 1991 Gulf War. But security experts say airports could be doing a lot more to protect travelers from the growing threat of terrorism. Some feel that many of the security measures travelers are seeing and enduring _ from closed-off terminals to identification checks _ fail to address far more crucial gaps.

``You can’t have a perfect system, but a lot of what the airports are doing right now is almost meaningless,″ says Billie Vincent, a former chief of security for the Federal Aviation Administration. ``What’s the point of towing cars when just about anyone can put a bomb on a plane just by checking their luggage?″

The new level of security _ so-called Level 2 _ was ordered by the FAA on Aug. 9, after the Clinton administration became concerned about terrorism threats in general. Three days later, New York’s three airports increased security even more on their own because police detected a specific threat against John F. Kennedy Airport. In a 30-page manual, the FAA mandates the steps airports must take at each security level, generally including increased police patrols, bag searches and parking limitations.

``Our security measures are appropriate to the threat,″ says an FAA spokeswoman, adding that the flying public should feel safe. Susan Rork, head of security for the Air Transport Association, the industry trade group, points out that airlines have spent millions of dollars developing the beefed-up security steps travelers are seeing this week. ``And there’s a lot we’re doing people can’t see,″ she says.

But it’s what the FAA isn’t mandating _ and what U.S. airlines and airports aren’t doing _ that concerns security consultants and some industry insiders. For example, airlines don’t have the technology yet to detect all explosives by X-raying checked luggage. But on all international flights, airlines electronically match the bar codes on checked bags with passenger-boarding lists, to prevent all but a suicide bomber from checking a bomb on a plane. Right up to the moment the flight takes off, the airline is making sure all travelers who check luggage are on the plane.

But even now, airlines aren’t matching bags on almost any domestic flights. Industry officials cite two reasons: money and logistics. There are about 10 times more people in the U.S. flying domesticaly than internationally. ``You’d probably bring the airline industry to a halt if you tried matching everyone with bags domestically,″ says a USAir spokesman. Several other airlines declined to comment.

That argument, however, doesn’t fly with most security consultants, who say airlines made the same claims before they started matching bags internationally. That started in the late 1980s, partly as a way to try to prevent the kind of bombing that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 270 people aboard. ``Bag matching is the most elementary step in security you can take,″ says Israel Boim of Air Security International in Houston. ``It’s standard practice in many parts of Europe.″

Most consultants also say airports shouldn’t be allowing curbside checking by skycaps, which is permitted under the FAA’s Level 2 alert. Skycaps earn their living largely on tips, yet the new security alert requires them to look for signs of a suspected terrorist. They are supposed to ask passengers certain questions and make sure their tickets weren’t bought with cash. ``You’re asking skycaps to grill the people who give them tips,″ says Mr. Boim. ``It’s an obvious conflict.″

Much better, he says, would be to have all bags checked at airline counters, where ticket agents are better trained to spot terrorists and where more police are stationed. A spokesman for the Air Transport Association in Washington says that curbside checking has been eliminated on some international flights and that airlines provide extra training for skycaps. ``The skycaps are a partner in this; they work closely with the airlines,″ says Chris Chiames, the spokesman.

To their dismay, some travelers have also noticed an alarming number of unattended bags in many airport baggage-claim areas _ even in New York. That’s because security lines are blurred in this part of the airport: Airlines are in charge of luggage on the carousel, but they say airport police are supposed to watch for anyone suspicious walking into the area. ``We can try, but aren’t the airlines supposed to do that?″ asks a spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates three New York area airports.

The Air Transport Association’s Ms. Rork points out that in most foreign countries, governments provide and pay for most elements of airport security, including the checking of bags. ``For whatever reason, it’s been decided that airlines have to take the lead role,″ she says. ``It puts a huge burden on us.″

Airlines, for instance, pay for the security people who X-ray carry-on bags and guard other checkpoints. Such employees receive only about a week’s training before they first go on duty, and critics say there often aren’t enough of them. Last month, a passenger who was apparently in a hurry evaded a security checkpoint at Houston Intercontinental Airport by simply running up a ``down″ escalator that was being watched by a single, unarmed security guard. Unable to track down the passenger, the airport was forced to round up 6,000 to 7,000 travelers in two terminals and screen them a second time.

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