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Passing the Buck:
Who Shortchanged Airport Security?

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A man at Logan Airport had a fanny pack tucked into his waistband. Inside was one of those sharp Leatherman multi-tools -- the kind you can use as pliers, or to murder an airline pilot. When he walked through airport security, he set off the metal detectors. And when he submitted to a hand-wand scan and the alarm sounded again, he lifted his shirt and pointed to his belt buckle, and the guard nodded and let him through.

Not once, but four different times. At four different places in Logan Airport. So much for the Fanny Pack Test.

"I predicted they'd see the technology working 100 percent of the time, and all the errors would come from people," says Steve Elson, a former Federal Aviation Administration security inspector who arranged the sting in April for a Boston TV news show. "We saw exactly that."

Next came the Carry-On Test. Elson packed a small rolling suitcase with clothes, then inserted a hair dryer and covered it with a lead film bag, the kind many travelers use. It registered as a large black blob on the metal-detector screen. "What they should do is open the bag and pick out the lead shield bag and see what it's hiding," Elson says. The domestic-gate guards didn't bother.

When the expose was aired, FAA officials promised to crack down on security. A few weeks later, the reporter repeated the tests, with the same exact results. The real sting at Logan, at Newark, and at Dulles came a few months later.

It's the morning of the attack, and Elson is yelling at me over the phone from his home in New Orleans. "Terrorism cannot be stopped!" he says. "No matter what, if the FAA had been at its best, maybe this still would have happened. But the simple fact is that for years people in the FAA knew this stuff has been going on, but they've done nothing but play games and lie. Boston's got the security of Swiss cheese, but people ask me, Is Boston worse than most airports? They're all easily penetrable without much effort. A moron could do it."

I had talked with Steve Elson four or five times this summer while reporting New York's cover story on airport safety "Flier Beware," August 13. Back then he was one of only a handful of air-safety hawks, hammering the agency for fudging safety numbers and letting the airlines skimp on security. Today we are all Steve Elson. We've all learned how easy it is to hijack a plane -- or four. We've learned how the screeners at every airport make minimum wage; how they get no more than twelve hours of training and a How to Run a Metal Detector videotape before being sent on their way; how few undergo background checks; how they work for the lowest bidders, subcontractors to the airlines, a minor budgetary item in an industry that doesn't want them at all.

The painful question, each time we allow ourselves to look at the skyline, is simply: Why has this gone on for so long? Until last Tuesday, our airport-security lie worked tacitly and tautologically -- a Mobius strip of buck-passing, spinning and building in centrifugal force. Here's what happened before it all ripped apart: When security guards failed spot checks by the FAA, the airlines would be fined. They would negotiate the fines before administrative judges in Washington and budget these fines into the price of doing business. Nothing ever changed. "Internally, we've grimly joked about these things, about the travesty of the system," a lawyer in Washington who works for several major carriers told me the day after the Towers crumbled. "The airlines just don't think security is their responsibility. And they get away with it."

After an infraction, the airlines would tell their subcontractors to fire the offending workers, who would then be replaced by people with even less experience. Or even worse, the offenders would eventually be rehired.Whenever security was breached, the airlines blamed the FAA for setting standards so low -- and their security companies for getting caught. "The FAA should have a certification program for screeners," Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association, the airlines' largest lobbying organization, told me this summer. Paying workers more never seemed to be an option. "It would be a waste of money to pay someone $25 an hour. It's not an exciting job, and therefore there's a lot of turnover. They get bored."

Time and again, the FAA disputed the Department of Transportation inspector general's allegations that security was bad. The agency would respond with its own statistics, which were then widely acknowledged to be a joke. "Either they didn't interpret the tests the same way or they were just trying to make people think things are okay when they're not," says Bob Monetti, who lost a son on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 and now sits on an FAA security committee.

Did the airlines really care about the FAA's safety record? No, because it's their lobby that makes sure the FAA's standards won't cost them money. Before last week, any new safety technology mandated by Congress first had to pass muster with a cost-benefit analysis, often controlled by the airlines. "If you're in any other industry and the government says you have to install smoke detectors or fire suppressants, you consider that the cost of doing business and you deal with it," says Victoria Cummock, the president of Families of Pan Am 103 Lockerbie, who sat on a presidential commission on air safety following the explosion of TWA flight 800. "The FAA would have to prove that a life would be saved by a smoke detector -- and you can't predict the future."

But you can kick yourself about the past. The new spin is that the passengers are supposedly to blame. We wanted fewer delays, shorter lines, lower fares. The airlines were doing this because we told them to.

Now, the airlines and the country have to decide, once and for all, if aviation is a public utility or a private business. If we want, security could be federalized, or militarized, or both; the airlines wouldn't have to pay for guards because taxpayers would. But the essential questions now are really what they always were. Do we want to feel safe? Or do we still feel lucky?


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