Security breaches vary widely at U.S. airports
CNN.com will soon run a four-part series examining the challenges facing U.S. airport security. In this preview story, CNN.com examines data on security breaches and weapons detected at the largest U.S. airports.
By Mike Fish
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The three airports from which September's terrorist hijackings originated had some of the nation's lowest rates for detecting weapons, according to an analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data.
Logan International in Boston, Washington Dulles in Dulles, Virginia, and Newark International in New Jersey had the first-, third- and fourth-lowest weapons detection rates among the 25 U.S. airports with the largest passenger volume, according to a CNN.com computer-assisted analysis of 10 years of federal aviation enforcement information.
Airport security has come under increased scrutiny following the September 11 terrorist attacks. The two Boeing 767s that terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center originated at Logan. The hijacked Boeing 757 that attacked the Pentagon took off from Dulles on the morning of September 11, and the Boeing 757 that crashed in rural Pennsylvania originated in Newark.
Since 1998, at least five reports from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have warned of the security system operating in the U.S. airline industry, pointing to the ease with which the system can be breached.
"For the longest time critics have claimed, and I am one of them, that the airline industry leans on their security guard companies to process people quickly," said Charles Slepian, a New York-based attorney and aviation security consultant. "In cities with large populations, you'll see they move people faster, which means they are not opening bags and taking away things that could be a weapon."
That assertion was disputed by United Air Lines spokesman Chris Brathwaite.
"We are in complete compliance with the FAA and all of their security directives," Brathwaite said. "Our policies are exactly what the FAA wants us to do."
The CNN.com analysis of FAA Enforcement Information System database reports from 1991 through 2000 indicates the weapons that were caught by airline screeners as a percentage of all reported security violations at each airport.
Weapons include firearms, knives, explosives, tear gas and incendiary devices.
Some of the non weapons-related violations include unauthorized vehicles on tarmacs; failure to run luggage through X-ray equipment before being loaded onto a plane; and allowing people without proper security badges to enter secure areas
Boston had lowest rate of weapon detection, data shows
The analysis shows that at Logan, only 5.7 percent of all security violations were weapons-related. Washington Dulles had the third-lowest rate of weapon detection at 9.7 percent, just behind Minneapolis-St. Paul, followed by Newark International at 10.1 percent, according to the analysis. The national average for the top 25 airports was a 17.7 percent detection rate.
The reasons for the varying rates could be due to differing gun cultures in the regions of the United States, passenger volume at airports, varying state gun laws and the differing companies contracted to provide security at the airports.
However, industry experts believe that the rates should not vary much from airport to airport.
"If security is standard across the country, if they're all using the same kinds of equipment and all have the same training, then they should all have the same success rates . . . (but) they're not the same in every airport," Slepian said. "The personnel are not the same. The quality of personnel is not the same. The supervision is not the same. The equipment, while standards are set by the FAA, may not be working properly."
FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said airport screening equipment should be comparable throughout U.S. airports. Takemoto declined to comment on either the analysis of breaches at security checkpoints or the frequency with which the FAA conducts its own tests of airport security systems.
"Yes, we do have standards for all the equipment used at the screener checkpoints," Takemoto said. "And they're recalibrated if they are moved. They're checked on a regular basis."
Of the top 25 airports, McCarran International in Las Vegas had the highest detection rate. There, 28.4 percent of security violations were weapons-related -- meaning the rate of detection of weapons at McCarran was five times higher than at Logan in Boston. The major airports in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City all had weapon-detection rates more than double Logan, Dulles and Newark.
Security by private firms
Airport security is handled by security firms that are hired and paid for by the airlines. When cited with violations, airlines are subject to paying fines. Since the attacks, there have been many proposals aimed at improving airport security.
Airline security legislation is stalled in Congress over whether airport security screeners should become federal employees.
The FAA's head of security, Michael Canavan, is leaving his job after only 10 months, the agency said Friday. Canavan is the second security official at the FAA to leave his post since the September 11 terrorist hijackings. Shortly after the attacks, Lee Longmire -- who worked under Canavan as the head of civil aviation security operations -- in charge of airport operations -- was transferred from that job to the head of the FAA's aviation security, policy and planning.
The CNN.com findings follow other studies that show the airports associated with the hijackings, particularly Boston, performed badly in checkpoint tests conducted by FAA agents.
According to a Boston Globe analysis of test data, FAA agents, posing as passengers, slipped 234 guns and other weapons past screeners at Logan -- the worst record of any major U.S. airport in the past 10 years.
The CNN.com analysis is based on actual detections by airport security personnel.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan, was not surprised by the analysis of security at the Boston airport.
"These numbers are precisely why we feel security checkpoints need to be the responsibility of trained law enforcement and not the responsibility of airlines," said Barbara Platt, an authority spokesperson.
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