San Diego Union-Tribune

November 15, 2001

Airport explosive-detection devices underused, spot check finds
  Latest lapses cited at Senate hearing


WASHINGTON -- A spot check of nine airports around the country last weekend found that only 27 percent of the explosive-detection machines were working at capacity to screen checked baggage, the Transportation Department's inspector general said yesterday.

At one unidentified airport, fewer than 10 percent of the checked bags were inspected. At another, a baggage screener was found falling asleep on the job while working a 20-hour shift.

Inspector General Kenneth Mead wouldn't identify the nine airports that were checked, but one congressional aide said O'Hare International Airport in Chicago was among them.

The latest examples of security violations at the nation's airports were revealed at a Senate hearing even as House and Senate negotiators remained stalled in their attempts to reach a compromise over their differing versions of aviation security legislation.

"That's really stunning," Senate Government Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said of the latest security lapses.

At Lindbergh Field in San Diego, the explosive-detection devices are at security checkpoints in all three passenger terminals, said Rita Vandergaw, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Unified Port District, which operates the airport. Vandergaw said she has seen the devices in operation but does not know how often they are used.

In recent weeks, the Federal Aviation Administration and Mead's office have found 90 security violations, including screeners not identifying dangerous items such as knives in passengers' carry-on luggage and airlines not conducting random checks of passengers, Mead said. Last week, a man
passed through initial screening checkpoints at O'Hare carrying seven knives, a stun gun and pepper spray in his bags.

"You know something is wrong when screeners are confiscating thousands of nail clippers, but allowing people with arsenals of weapons through," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Both Mead and FAA chief Jane Garvey urged congressional negotiators to move quickly to break the impasse on the aviation safety legislation, designed to strengthen the federal government's control over security.

The main issue is whether about 28,000 airport baggage screeners, who now are employed by private contractors hired by the airlines, should become federal employees. The Senate bill would have them join the federal work force, but the House bill would leave them as private employees with federal

Numerous studies in recent years have found that airline baggage screeners are low-paid, undertrained and stay only a short time on the job.

The Transportation Department has taken numerous steps to strengthen security at airports since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including increasing the use of armed marshals aboard planes, strengthening cockpit doors, stepping up law enforcement at airports and using watch lists to detect
suspicious passengers.

The FAA also required airlines to randomly select enough passenger baggage to provide the $1 million explosive-detection machines with a constant stream of luggage to examine. But investigators have found repeated instances where this isn't occurring.

A United Airlines flight attendant called the new FAA security requirements "merely window dressing."

"I do not believe any changes in place today have made air travel more secure," said Jacqueline Mattes, representing the Association of Flight Attendants.

Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, agreed.

"Inconsistent, even illogical screening practices are doing little for security, and they are eroding the confidence that the traveling public has in the security system," Woerth said.

Staff writer Mark Arner contributed to this report.