Security breach at BWI is probed

Passenger with knife not stopped at checkpoint

Pier shut down for 40 minutes

April 06, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Federal authorities are investigating how security officers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport failed yesterday to stop a knife-carrying passenger from disappearing into a crowd, prompting the evacuation of a pier and the delay of 35 flights.

About 5:20 a.m., a baggage screener saw the image of a knife on an X-ray machine at the entrance to Pier D. But before the screener could call for a hand search of the bag, a passenger picked it up and walked away from the checkpoint and into the pier.

The security breach could hardly have come at a worse time, at the beginning of the work week and half an hour before the airport's first flight of the day. The airport was crowded with the morning rush, as well as with college students headed off to spring break.

The pier was evacuated and shut down for 40 minutes as authorities searched for the knife. Flights were delayed up to two hours as hundreds of passengers were rescreened.

A knife was found in the rescreening, but officials aren't sure if it was the one they were looking for.

"The passenger may have gone back to their car and left the knife or put it in a trash can or left the airport," said BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean. "It's impossible to speculate."

The Transportation Security Administration was unable to clearly explain yesterday how the passenger walked away without being stopped, or why the screener took so long in calling for a hand search.

The federal security director at BWI is investigating the incident.

The agency declined to identify the screener involved, but said the employee was immediately pulled from the security checkpoint yesterday and will undergo remedial training, perhaps with others involved in the incident.

"Any of the screeners involved will be going through remedial training to make sure they're doing the right thing," said TSA spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan. "We'll check the system, but we'll also check our people."

Millions confiscated

It is unusual for the TSA for evacuate entire piers. More often, items are confiscated at the checkpoint.

In the past two years, the TSA has confiscated 3.4 million knives at U.S. airports, along with 6.2 million incendiary devices, such as flares. Last Monday alone, 58 knives were collected at BWI.

"Our screeners have to get it right every single time -- every passenger, every bag, every moment," Rhatigan said. "The terrorists only have to get it right once."

BWI returned to normal operations by about 9 a.m. yesterday, officials said, though flight delays continued. Even into midday, flights were delayed up to an hour because planes had stacked up throughout the morning.

Passengers interviewed at BWI yesterday said they felt secure flying, but expressed disbelief that someone could have slipped a knife through security so easily -- even after it had been identified.

"That's really amazing because every other airport we've been in the last two years has been strict," said Ginger Goldman, who was traveling home to Seattle with her husband, Richard.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group, said the incident highlights the problems inherent with the TSA's "reverse funnel" approach to security.

He said that people are narrowed down to a single line at the metal detectors, but are free to go anywhere as soon as they pass through.

"Once you're processed through the metal detectors, it's wide open at the very end and it's very easy for people to walk out," Stempler said. "There's no control, and there's no limitations."

Recognition software

He also said the government should explore using recognition software that can alert screeners when objects resembling knives or other banned objects appear on X-ray machines.

Such software could automatically stop the machines' conveyor belts when banned items appear.

"The recognition software, in connection with the X-ray machines, would recognize images faster and more accurately than someone staring at a screen, [who] after a while starts to glaze over," Stempler said.

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