Small fixes could make airports safer

Homeland report focuses on improved screening

June 05, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Significant gaps in security at the nation's airports could be curtailed even at a time of rising passenger traffic by quickly making a wide range of relatively modest changes in screening people and bags, a confidential report by the Department of Homeland Security has concluded.

Fixing serious weaknesses in the nation's aviation security system is critical as passenger traffic rises beyond levels seen before the Sept. 11 attacks, the report observed. This summer, passengers are expected to take about 200 million trips globally on the nation's airlines, up about 4 percent from last year.

The proposed fine-tuning of airport security includes expanding the use of devices that can detect trace amounts of explosives and stationing more armed guards in secure areas.

"There is increasing pressure to increase the flow of passengers and their property through security checkpoints," the report said. "Unfortunately, our analysis has shown there are significant security gaps at checkpoints as they currently exist."

Widespread delays caused by security breaches could be reduced by preventing passengers from dashing through exits leading from secure areas, the report said. Checkpoints operated by the Transportation Security Administration, the division of Homeland Security that oversees airport security, should have gates or lockable doors at those exits, the report said.

And while the TSA has an agreement with local law enforcement agencies to provide backup if necessary, the arrangement is not sufficient, the investigators concluded, because it may take several minutes for an armed response.

"If, say, a handgun were discovered," the report says, "the terrorist would have ample ability to retain control of it. TSA screeners are neither expecting to encounter a real weapon nor are they trained to gain control of it."

To speed the screening process, the report included some low-tech solutions, like setting up longer tables where passengers deposit personal items into plastic bins. Because people are often backed up waiting to unload items, investigators found, the X-ray machines that examine carry-on baggage sit idle as much as 30 percent of the time.

Mark O. Hatfield Jr., a spokesman for the TSA, said steps are already being taken to speed passengers through airports without compromising security, including expanding checkpoints at airports in Atlanta, Denver and Washington, D.C. As a result, Hatfield said, even though passenger traffic is increasing, the average peak waiting time at checkpoints has dropped a minute in the past year, to about 12 minutes.

"Getting as many people through as possible in a way that maintains or improves security - that's the name of the game," he said.

The detailed aviation security evaluation was necessary, the 214-page report says, because government officials made mistakes in rushing to improve aviation security after Sept. 11.

"There can be no doubt that their efforts were Herculean, and the resulting system has made the nation safer," the report says. "However, speed always comes at a cost, and the existing system may neither uniformly provide the degree of security desired, nor do it as efficiently and/or in as customer-friendly a fashion as might be achievable."

The study, prepared at the request of Congress, looks at four areas: passenger checkpoints, checked baggage, air cargo and inbound international flights. Staff members from Homeland Security and employees of defense contractor Northrop Grumman examined five domestic airports - including Dulles and Reagan National - and 16 foreign ones, looking for ways to quickly modify existing operations.

The report was not intended to be released to the public, but a copy was obtained by The New York Times.

While the report found ways to improve security and increase the processing of passengers, it said that to simultaneously accomplish both would most likely require the construction of additional checkpoint lanes.

Congress is already moving to provide financing for certain proposals, Homeland Security officials say.

"It is not gathering dust on a shelf," Donald W. Tighe, a department spokesman, said of the report. "It is translating into action."

Christopher R. Bidwell, managing director for security at the Air Transport Association, said many of the recommendations seemed obvious, "but they are things that need to happen."

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