Inspections found gaps in security at BWI

Airport: In FAA tests, 50 weapons passed undetected through checkpoints between 1995 and 2000. But records show lapses at BWI are not unique.

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

October 03, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Federal inspections conducted before last month's terrorist hijackings reveal that at least 16 bombs, nine hand grenades and 25 guns and other weapons passed undetected through security checkpoints at Baltimore-Washington International Airport - all carried by security officials testing the system for flaws.

Those 50 incidents - recorded from January 1995 to August of last year - appear to be the most serious among 434 security violations publicly documented by the Federal Aviation Administration and reviewed by The Sun. The FAA imposed fines in 38 percent of the cases.

For example, on May 9, 2000, inspectors slipped what FAA records describe as a "dynamite bomb" through Delta Air Lines security, a lapse for which the airline was fined $3,000.

The security failures at BWI - and similar breaches at airports across the country - underscore the quantum leap that will be required for President Bush's new airport security measures to succeed. And they explain why the Bush administration has made a commitment of money, manpower and technology to bolster passenger screening.

Still struggling to detect the most obvious and dangerous weapons, airlines and airports now must weed out far less obtrusive items, such as small knives and box cutters.

Growing security lines at airports, more stringent baggage checks, and the presence of the National Guard and bomb-sniffing dogs are testament to the stepped-up efforts at airports nationwide. Nevertheless, at some airports in recent days, passengers have managed to avoid detection while walking through security with weapons - a handgun, a knife, and box cutters similar to those used by the hijackers on Sept. 11.

Since the hijackings, security at airports across the country is "a little bit better," said Mary Schiavo, who was inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1990 to 1996. "But we're not doing much different right now, just spot-checking. Probably the best thing they could do would be to open all the luggage and all the bags."

Michael Taylor, head of Air International Security Corp., a Boston-based company that assesses airport vulnerability, described airports historically as "open sieves that can be accessed 360 degrees."

"To go from such lax security to such tight security is a dramatic jump, and people should not be surprised that guns and knives are continuing to get through," Taylor said.

Schiavo said the record of items that managed to get through BWI security in recent years seemed comparable to other airports.

"When we looked at them, the airports all had their problems," she said. "None were particularly great."

Only closed cases at BWI were made public by the FAA, the most recent stemming from an Aug. 9, 2000, incident in which Ghana Airways was cited for failing to comply with unspecified security procedures.

Many other violations at the state-operated airport, including all of those recorded this year, are pending and have not been made public.

Federal aviation officials refused to discuss the history and number of violations at BWI or any other airport, saying they were prohibited from doing so under a "sensitive security directive" from the FAA's general counsel. After the Sept. 11 hijackings, officials also removed some information from a Web site containing details of the violations for "national security reasons," according to agency spokesman Hank Price.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening referred questions about the violations at BWI to state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, who defended security procedures at the airport.

"We were told in the most recent annual inspection by the FAA that the security posture at BWI is strong," Porcari said. "If any breach of security is found by the FAA or by ourselves, we take it very seriously - we look at it, study it and do whatever is required to correct it."

Porcari declined to make public the FAA inspection report, which was compiled last spring. He also said he did not know how many tests FAA inspectors conduct at the airport annually, except to say there were "thousands."

"The FAA has multiple people here testing us basically every day," he said.

Porcari said that employees had been suspended or fired for failing to detect contraband and that a "considerable investment" had been made in scanning machines - including some capable of detecting bombs - and canine units that sniff for explosives, although he would not go into detail. He said the state also has obtained funding for fingerprint machines to conduct better background checks on airport employees.

In recent days, armed state troopers have patrolled BWI. National Guard troops will replace them tomorrow.

"The efforts made by the aviation administration are evident," Porcari said.

In at least 41 cases since 1995, security officers at BWI have succeeded in detecting guns and other weapons carried by actual passengers, records show.

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