TAMPA - This month, a pair of airline employees used their insider knowledge of security at Orlando International Airport to stash a duffel bag containing 14 guns near a departure gate, federal authorities said.
The Comair employees later carried the weapons aboard a Delta Air Lines flight to Puerto Rico. Although authorities arrested one of the men before the airliner took off, the second man - and the weapons - made the flight to San Juan, investigators said.
The Orlando incident followed weeks of preliminary discussions among aviation officials about a proposal by U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., for a pilot project at five airports to screen airport employees each time they enter a secure area.
The norm at all but one U.S. airport today is to conduct random checks. Now the gun incident, the proposal and surprise federal security inspections at Tampa and four other airports last week has focused attention on two fundamental questions:
How secure is commercial aviation from terrorist threats? And how can security against terrorism be enhanced?
The answer to the first question is no one can tell.
The good news has been that the Sept. 11 attacks have not been repeated, perhaps in large measure because of billions of dollars spent on new security programs. Tighter passenger screening, fortified cockpit doors, enhanced scrutiny of checked baggage and armed marshals onboard certain flights may have helped.
Even so, the alleged inside job by the two airline employees in Orlando deftly circumvented the nation's multibillion dollar airport security system.
"Nearly six years after Sept. 11, TSA is finally responding to a gaping hole in airport security," Lowey said last week.
"A temporary surge is not a solution to this long-term security gap, and nothing less than 100 percent screening of workers at all airports will close this loophole for good."
Lowey's bill, co-sponsored by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., and filed March 8, would assess vulnerability at each airport chosen for the pilot project.
Each assessment also would include a report on vulnerabilities relating to security badge and uniform controls.
After an inquiry by a Texas TV station last year, the Transportation Security Administration revealed that 3,700 TSA uniforms and badges were unaccounted for nationwide. That included 63 uniforms and nine identification cards issued to TSA employees at Tampa International Airport.
Lowey's bill also calls for airport operators to evaluate screening technology at each airport in the pilot program. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, sought Tuesday for Orlando International to be selected for the pilot project.
The request for detailed assessments of employee security risks illustrates the shortfall in available information about how well the current security systems operate.
The bill requires a final report that would include an assessment of the security improvements and the costs of such a program, along with the results of the airport vulnerability studies.
Miami Screens Its Employees
Since 1998, Miami International Airport has checked each airport employee who enters a secure airport area. But its program, which costs about $2.5 million annually, was in response to smuggling problems rather than security fears.
The airport has 33,000 employees with security badges.
"We reduced our access points to four, and the program works without disruption to the airport's operation," said Miami International security director Lauren Stover, a former TSA employee.
"The only way to get to a secure area is through one of four checkpoints. It is working well with no complaints," Stover said.
Airport directors nationwide have responded cautiously, if not critically, to the early reports of Lowey's proposals.
Tim Anderson, deputy executive operations director of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, told USA Today that Lowey's proposal was "an unworkable idea that could create gridlock."
Officials at Tampa International reacted coolly. The proposal for 100 percent screening checks of employees entering secure areas is unworkable, airport director Louis Miller said. Tampa International has 6,300 employees with security credentials.
"A lot of airport employees go from unsecure areas to secure areas many times during the day," assistant director John Wheat said. "We would have to shut down quite a few access points."
TSA officials declined formal comment on pending legislation. But the agency did say its security at airports, including random checks of employees, TV surveillance and other security procedures, has been effective.
"We are better off with a layered approach than just using 100 percent screening checks," TSA spokesman Christopher White said.
Trade Group Wants Broader Tactics
Officials with Washington-based Airports Council International-North America, a trade group for airport officials, said it is too early to summarize its members' positions on Lowey's screening proposal.
However, the group acknowledges that to successfully thwart terrorists, any airport's security must go beyond defensive tactics.
That would include a commitment to intelligence gathering, said Debby McElroy, ACI senior vice president of government affairs.
An example when an offensive approach worked would be last year's prevention in Great Britain of a terrorist plot to destroy numerous trans-Atlantic flights.
But to be even more successful, officials would have to go further yet, into the realm of social and cultural issues, retired Canadian Air Force Lt. Gen. Scott Clements said.
Clements became director of the Regional Airports Authority in Edmonton, Alberta, after a military career as a fighter pilot and commander in Canada's Air Force for two years. He now serves as a private business consultant and visited Tampa in 2004 to offer the keynote speech at the Tony Jannus commercial aviation award luncheon.
"In the context of protecting airports, we must understand those [airport] folks think short term and not long term," Clements said in a telephone interview from Calgary.
"We need to bring up the wider issue of why do we have 17-and 18-year olds somehow thinking that killing themselves and lots of other people is a good thing. That has disturbed me for some time," he said.
Clements suggests completing the equation of counterterrorism strategies with a focus on the worldwide issues of treating hunger and basic survival needs of youngsters.
Clements deems airport security and intelligence gathering measures necessary, but he sees a basic problem that confronts airport officials who are not allowed to take charge of security efforts.
"My red flag goes up when I see divided authorities," Clements said.
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