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Archive for Sunday, October 7, 2001

Reporters get potentially lethal weapons on flights

October 7, 2001

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— Despite a nationwide security crackdown, two New York Daily News reporters were able to slip potentially deadly carry-on items such as knives, razor blades and scissors past checkpoints at 10 major airports last week as part of an investigation by the paper.

One Daily News reporter carried a razor-blade cutter, similar to the weapons used in the Sept. 11 hijackings, aboard a flight from LaGuardia to Washington.

Another Daily News reporter cleared security at Newark Airport toting pepper spray, a utility knife and scissors. Guards at Kennedy Airport failed to catch a camping knife with a 2 1/2-inch steel blade.

At the three airports where hijacked flights originated -- Newark, Boston's Logan Airport and Washington's Dulles International Daily News reporters were able to get dangerous items past security.

"We don't have better airport security in this country," said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant from Evergreen, Colo., when told of The News' investigation. "This kind of test proves it. All we have is more inconvenient security."

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees airport security, said it would immediately investigate the lapses identified.

"We will look into the things that got through," said Jim Peters, FAA spokesman for the eastern region. "We will talk to the appropriate people at the screening. We take the allegations very seriously."

Security variances

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three major New York area airports, also said it would investigate the breaches. Agencies overseeing other airports and some of the airlines involved said they, too, would look into security lapses.

"We are very surprised and concerned that you were able to do what you did," said Julia Bishop-Cross, a spokeswoman for American and TWA, two of the airlines flown by the reporters. "It is a matter of great concern to us."

Before Sept. 11, the FAA allowed knives with blades shorter than 4 inches in carry-on bags. But since the hijack attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the agency has banned knives and cutting instruments of any size or material in the aircraft cabin.

To examine whether the new regulations are working, The News sent two reporters on 12 commercial flights through 11 airports Wednesday and Thursday. The reporters were able to carry sharp metal objects onto 10 of those flights.

The News probe found that security procedures varied by airport and airline. In some cases, guards searched carry-on bags by hand and frisked travelers. In others, the security process appeared the same as before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I don't see or feel any real difference," said Donna MacLetchie, a Manhattan publicity agent who flew Thursday from LaGuardia to Boston. "The security guards seem to be looking for something, but I'm not sure they know what it is."

ID checks

At some airports, guards asked to see photo identification and boarding passes before passengers could enter the checkpoint. Some agents wanted to see identification upon boarding the plane. In other airports, travelers needed ID only to get their boarding passes at the ticket counter.

Even the perusal of IDs was uneven. Some guards studied documents for several seconds, looking at each person to make sure the photo matched. But a News reporter used her expired driver's license 18 times and was questioned about it only twice.

The terrorist attacks, which included the hijackings of four planes, prompted calls to overhaul airport security. The current system makes airlines responsible for screening passengers, a job most major carriers pass on to private firms, which often pay low wages and have high turnover.

Some aviation officials and lawmakers have called for the federal government to take over checkpoint security. Others fear that federally run airport security would become a bureaucratic nightmare.

President Bush has proposed a dramatic increase in the number of federal marshals who ride planes and has promised $500 million to beef up airport security.

And Friday, National guards troops began patrolling Newark International and other airports across the county.

Some security experts said The News' findings demonstrate the folly of trying to keep every dangerous object out of a plane's cabin. They said the government must do a better job of tracking terrorists and keeping them away from airports, not just hunting for potential weapons.

"Yes, we have to ensure items don't get on the plane, but the more important issue is not what gets on a plane, but who," said Ray Kelly, former NYPD commissioner and now chief of global security for investment giant Bear Stearns.

Kelly, recently appointed to a federal airport security commission, said airlines should run passenger names against government lists of suspected terrorists. He also said federal agents should screen passengers and perform more rigorous ID checks on certain travelers.

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