Authorities find holes in Sea-Tac security

Testers successfully bring bomb, grenade through checkpoints

Posted: Monday, September 17, 2001

SEATTLE - Federal and police records show significant lapses in security at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the Seattle Times reported in a copyright article on Sunday.

On June 14, 2000, an FAA tester passed through a security checkpoint at the Sea-Tac South Terminal with a hand grenade in a carry-on bag. Four days later, a tester passed a dynamite bomb in a bag undetected through X-ray screeners on Concourse C, the Times reported.

A month later, testers got another hand grenade into Concourse C, steps from being carried onto a jet.

Such lapses have taken on new significance in the wake of last Tuesday's terrorist hijacking and crashing of four passenger jets in New York, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania.

The Times, which reviewed 20 years' worth of local Federal Aviation Administration security violations and two years' worth of Port of Seattle police records, found a number of problems.

In 1995 tests, for example, Sea-Tac security screeners found fake bombs only 12 percent of the time. That was the second-worst performance of 20 major U.S. airports, behind Los Angeles International.

Sea-Tac is the nation's 13th busiest airport.

Passengers at Sea-Tac also have the second-highest rate of FAA firearm violations in the country, second to Los Angeles. FAA records show that a Sea-Tac passenger is cited nearly every week for a gun violation.

Bob Parker, a spokesman for the Port of Seattle, which oversees airport operations, said most weapons violations at the airport are minor, unintentional and pose no hazard to travelers.

Other common violations involve weapons in checked luggage that are not declared.

Port police arrest the weapon carrier only when there is an apparent violation of state law, as when a man last year tried to carry a handgun in an ankle holster through security.

In 2000, the FAA fined airlines at Sea-Tac $153,000 for 57 incidents. The fines generally are passed on to private security companies.

Security checks are conducted at Sea-Tac and airports around the country by privately employed screeners who often make only about $8 per hour, without benefits.

"Airport security in the United States is really not that good," said Rick Charles, a pilot, aviation-safety consultant and professor at Georgia State University.

Three companies handle Sea-Tac security. Huntleigh USA, with about 220 Sea-Tac employees, covers checkpoints on Concourse A, Concourse C and the North Terminal, and is paid mostly by Northwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Southwest and Delta contract with local Olympic Security Services for checkpoints on Concourse B.

Until June, Argenbright Security ran security at one of the concourses. Last year, Argenbright was fined $1.5 million for falsifying records about checking the backgrounds and training of employees at Philadelphia International Airport. Argenbright still provides background checks for some Sea-Tac employees.

Huntleigh's screeners make about $8.05 per hour with no health benefits or paid sick leave.

Average annual turnover among Sea-Tac screeners is about 140 percent, according to a 1999 study by Congress' General Accounting Office.

"Increasing pay is one of the single most effective ways to reduce turnover," Miguel Contreras, a former Los Angeles airport commissioner and now a labor leader, told the FAA last year.

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