SEATAC, Wash. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is 18th in passenger traffic but sixth in the nation in number of security problems, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.
The problem, experts say, is front-line security screeners are poorly paid and poorly trained. Airports across the country have the same problem, but the booming 1990s economy in the Seattle area may have made it harder for Sea-Tac airport security to attract and retain skilled employees.
"Clearly the people involved are doing something wrong. They've got the technology at Sea-Tac," said airport security expert Rick Charles, a Georgia State University associate professor.
"I don't like to put the blame on those people," Charles quickly added. "They're trained really poorly if at all. The solution, and we should have done it 30 years ago, is to turn airport security into a national priority -- and pay the price for it."
Janitors at Sea-Tac are better paid than security screeners. People who clean the bathrooms make $10 an hour to start, plus benefits. People who are supposed to stop weapons from being carried onto airplanes are paid $8.05, with no benefits.
No one is blaming the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on security lapses. The box-cutters the terrorists are believed to have used were allowed under old FAA regulations.
Now airports are supposed to be tightening security, including banning all knifelike weapons or tools from planes. But reports indicate there have already been lapses.
An American Airlines passenger said today he walked through security checkpoints at Sea-Tac several times carrying a box-cutter in his backpack and was never stopped. The passenger, an electrician, uses the box-cutters in his work and says he didn't realize until later they were in his pack.
At Sea-Tac, as at most major airports, airlines are responsible for security, and they contract out screening jobs to the lowest bidder.
"There's inadequate training, significant turnover, and the screeners just haven't received the tools that are necessary to meet the demands of the job," said Marc Earles, president of Service Employees International Union Local 6 in Seattle, which has been trying to organize local airport security screeners. "You have to decide the work is important."
FAA regional spokesman Allen Kenitzer said he has "no idea" why Sea-Tac would have a disproportionate number of enforcement actions for its size. He said he could not comment on the security data.
People at Sea-Tac say they haven't noticed any particular security flaws.
Mark Aiken of Seattle was waiting for a friend -- at the baggage claim, since people without tickets are no longer allowed at the gates. He's traveled in Europe and Asia, and has always noticed how security there is tighter, and often more time-consuming.
"I never really thought about it. Now it seems like it makes a lot of sense," he said. "Compared to other North American airports, I think Sea-Tac's about on par."
Cheryl Hundley, waiting on line at the Southwest counter, said she never noticed security problems during her frequent trips between Seattle and her home in San Antonio. On her first trip after the terrorist attacks, she didn't experience the tougher security she had expected.
"Honestly, I could tell very little difference," she said. "Coming here, not one time did I show my picture I.D."
The FAA's job is to make sure security protections at airports are working. At airports throughout Washington state over the past decade, the FAA fined airlines and security firms for violations only about one-third of the time. That's the same as the national average.
From 1990 to 2000, FAA inspectors took action 463 times against airlines, airports or security firms in Washington state. In 202 cases, the lapses resulted in fines. In 192 cases, the issue was settled without a fine.
Kenitzer said the violations vary widely in seriousness, from improperly documenting employee background checks to allowing FAA testers to sneak weapons through security. In cases where, for instance, a company was performing the right background checks but just not doing the paperwork correctly, he said a fine would not be necessary.
He said he doesn't know whether the FAA will start to get tougher on security violations, handing out more fines instead of warnings.
"I know that's being looked at," Kenitzer said. "Everything is being looked at. Things are obviously going to be a lot more stringent."
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