Security gaps found at Anchorage airport

Test bombs sneaked through X-ray machines

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2001

ANCHORAGE Government agents testing security at Anchorage's international airport last year penetrated security at least eight times over a month, sneaking bombs through X-ray machines and strolling unnoticed into restricted areas.

In the first eight months of 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration cited Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and Alaska Airlines for 33 security violations and assessed them $68,300 total in fines, the Anchorage Daily News reported. The airport and Alaska Airlines are two of the main on-site security providers.

Most fines stemmed from unauthorized people getting into restricted areas or through secured doors. Also, screeners missed bombs and weapons passing through checkpoints in the main terminal on three occasions.

The FAA declined to discuss how it checks security or how often its agents get caught trying to sneak bombs and weapons through airport screening. Nationwide,

federal studies in the late 1980s found agents were successful in one of every five attempts.

In recent years, the FAA has cited hundreds of violations in Anchorage. The agency issued warnings instead of fines for most of these incidents.

Critics of airport security nationwide say the system lacks accountability because different contractors, police officers and airline workers are responsible for security of different parts of an airport. Low-paid security screeners employed by the airlines are the last line of defense. Their pay is so low that turnover averages more than 100 percent annually at major airports.

Now, following the biggest airport security lapse in U.S. history, changes are under way.

National Guard troops are deployed, random car searches are occurring and access inside terminals is limited. The larger question facing Congress is whether to take federal control of passenger screening and perhaps other security duties.

The Senate voted 100 to 0 last week to pass a bill that would nationalize the baggage screening system at airports, but conservative House Republicans have balked at creating a new federal work force of 28,000 people.

"It's ridiculous," Rep. Don Young, Republican of Alaska and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said of the Senate bill. Young is drafting the Republican version of the House bill.

House Republicans want to put the federal government in charge of supervising and training private security workers and terminating contracts with their security firms. They also advocate setting rigorous standards. The White House also opposes making the screeners federal employees.

About 2.4 million passengers start their travel at the Anchorage airport each year. The airport's performance showed more security violations in 1999, the last full year of information available, than at similar-sized U.S. airports, according to FAA records.

In 1999 the FAA issued 127 violations and $76,930 in fines to the Anchorage airport, airlines and passengers. Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers, which sees about the same passenger traffic as Anchorage, had only 12 violations and $24,875 in fines.

Two-thirds of all FAA violations in 1999 stemmed from travelers failing to declare firearms when checking in at ticket counters or carrying them through screening checkpoints. Airline screeners caught the guns before they made it aboard planes.

Most airport or airline violations occurred when FAA agents penetrated restricted areas or observed others doing so. Some violations were for "piggybacking," following employees through secured doors.

From 1999 to August 2000, the FAA fined Alaska Airlines $55,000 for access issues in Anchorage. Alaska Air provides security for concourses A and B in the main terminal. Three other airlines got warnings.

The airport was assessed $21,875 in fines during the period, although some were later waived.

Although the FAA cited the airport, most violations were for mistakes made by airlines and contractors, not airport employees. In those cases, the airport passed the fines to those responsible, airport director Mort Plumb said.

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