Sunday, September 23, 2001

Few security lapses locally

Airport fares well compared to others

By James Pilcher and John J. Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — Security was violated at least 152 times at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport over the past decade, in incidents ranging from passengers carrying loaded guns to people getting into unauthorized areas.

        Authorities say the number is relatively low — about 14 a year at an airport that annually serves 22.5 million passengers on more than 400,000 flights.

        It's also lower than that of comparable-size airports, according to an Enquirer analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data on security violations between 1990 and August 2000.

[photo] A sign at the American Airlines counter at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport reminds travelers that bags require identification.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        Most experts say the data may be a sign that few people are breaking the law at Cincinnati's airport, 16th busiest in the nation.

        But they also warn that the number may be deceiving.

        It's impossible to know how many times security actually may have been breached, particularly at an airport where 60 percent of passengers never pass through local security gates because they're simply making connecting flights.

        More important, air experts say, even one person defeating a security system is too many. Terrorists managed to walk onto four flights on Sept. 11 in a chain of events that left at least 6,000 people dead.

        “Cincinnati may be better than most. And what happened (Sept. 11) may or may not have been a breakdown of the existing system,” says Richard Golaszewski, partner in the suburban Philadelphia aviation firm, GRA Inc., which consults on security with the FAA.

        “But that doesn't change the fact that the system as a whole has problems, and those problems need to be fixed.”

Illegal weapons

        More than 40 percent of security violations here involved illegal weapons such as long knives, guns or explosives, according to the FAA data. All security violations are required to be reported to the FAA by airport authorities, airline officials or FAA agents who spot the lapses themselves.

        Guns of all types are prohibited in airline passenger cabins, even if the owners have permits to carry the weapons. Guns can be taken on flights, but only if they're registered with the airline, packed unloaded and locked up in the cargo holds.

        Until Sept. 11, knives over 4 inches long were prohibited, too. Now, knives of all lengths and types are banned — including scissors, pocket knives and even nail clippers.

        The data do not show how the weapons were detected. But in 29 cases, a passenger was carrying a handgun. And in 23 of those, the gun was loaded.

        In another seven cases, a non-passenger was caught with a loaded gun.

        In 1998, then Kentucky state Rep. Steve Worthington passed through airport security in Dallas-Fort Worth even though he had a loaded handgun in his carry-on bag.

        Mr. Worthington, now deceased, said at the time that he had not realized he had the gun with him, which Mr. Golaszewski says “is more common than most people realize, or at least it was before the attacks.”

        Another 27 percent of violations at Cincinnati's airport involved people who somehow gained unauthorized access to secure areas.

        Areas are off-limits if they provide access to unattended baggage, the tarmac or even the airplane itself. Only workers such as baggage handlers, ramp workers, plane mechanics and caterers are supposed to be able to get in.

        The airport now requires that workers in these areas pass a 10-year background check.

        In December, the airport also instituted new rules making it illegal for authorized workers to hold secure doors open for anyone else. The rules banning so-called “piggy backing” also toughened protocol for use of security badges in general.

        Another one-fourth of all local violations were for some sort of security failure during an inspection by the FAA or other governmental organization.

        The FAA conducts such undercover tests at least twice a year at most major airports nationwide. Typically, agents try to slip fake weapons or bombs through security checkpoints or try to talk their way into unauthorized areas.

        The number of FAA security inspections nationwide nearly tripled between 1997 and 2000, to more than 34,000. FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen would not comment on how many inspections have been performed in Cincinnati, or what they might have found.

        Chuck Melville, chief of police for the airport's 38-member force, says the FAA inspections are usually kept secret in advance, but are routine.

        “They test us on response times and things like that,” Mr. Melville says. He says his officers respond in less than two and a half minutes to any area of the airport, including security checkpoints, that may be compromised by someone trying to bring in a weapon.

        “And I challenge any other agency to respond to an emergency like that,” he says.

        Delta spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski says the airline conducts internal tests of the system, too, but she wouldn't discuss specifics.

        And airport security coordinator Joe Weil says his staff routinely conducts undercover inspections and is in daily contact with the FAA.

        “Security is a constantly changing and breathing beast,” Mr. Weil says. “This is not the same airport it was a week ago. But then again, it is not the same airport it was a year ago. We know what is at stake with this.”

Who handles what?

        Responsibility for making sure air travel is safe and secure at the Cincinnati airport generally falls like this:

        • Airport police are responsible for patrolling restricted areas and the airport perimeter. Airport police also respond to any emergency.

        They've been even more visible since the airport reopened Sept. 13, two days after a nationwide shutdown of all airports in response to the attacks. Today, it's not uncommon to see bomb-sniffing police dogs.

        • The airlines are responsible for passenger screening, which includes baggage searches and X-ray and magnometer screening at security checkpoints.

        In most cases, the airlines hire outside firms to provide these services. Locally, Delta has hired Atlanta-based firm Argenbright Security, the nation's largest aviation security company and the third-largest security firm of any type.

        Many government audits and outside reports prior to the attacks called this system into question. They said that the hiring of outside security firms puts an emphasis on cost — resulting in low-paid and poorly motivated employees taking charge of a key area in aviation.

        In fact, the General Accounting Office has issued 29 reports, audits or reviews since 1983 criticizing the system, citing high turnover and low pay as major flaws with passenger screening.

        Since Sept. 11, many air security officials and airline critics have renewed calls for the federal government to take over the task of screening passengers. The airlines endorse the idea.

        “Everybody shares some responsibility for security, and for creating a situation that allowed Sept. 11 to happen,” says Indiana University public affairs professor Kurt Zorn, who has written several articles on airline security and terrorism.

        He blames “the airlines for sure, but also the airports, the FAA and even the flying public for being complacent about it and for stressing convenience.”


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