WASHINGTON — Two Western airports--Phoenix and Las Vegas--had the weakest security against concealed weapons among 28 airports tested in an undercover Federal Aviation Administration operation. At both airports, unloaded guns and defused grenades slipped past checkpoints more than half of the time.
Only 34% of the weapons were detected by guards at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport. The detection rate at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport was 45%.
The FAA's security testing was described in a report by the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, which prepared it at the request of Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), chairman of a House subcommittee on government activities and transportation.
The GAO report listed no specific airport figures, saying merely that the 28 airports had an 80% detection rate on 2,419 tests. But a member of the subcommittee, Rep. Howard Nielson (R-Utah), disclosed the Phoenix and Las Vegas figures at a subcommittee hearing this week, along with the name of the top-rated airport--Anchorage, Alaska, where 99% of the weapons were caught.
The FAA on Friday refused to disclose detection rates for other airports, including Los Angeles International, saying that releasing the statistics--particularly low scores--would represent an invitation to would-be hijackers.
Airlines are responsible for screening passengers and their baggage, but private security firms under contract usually do that work. At Los Angeles International Airport, four firms are employed by various airlines.
Kenneth Mead, GAO associate director, said that at six major airports "many of the problems in the human factors study still exist.
"For example, security managers said that screening employees are still being paid at or near minimum wage and that low pay contributes to high turnover--in some cases about 100%--and problems in hiring capable people," Mead said.
"That's right on the button," said Jim Black, customer service director for Shield Security Inc., one of the firms that works at LAX. "We've got people that turn over monthly. They don't make much more than minimum wage. We can't afford to pay more than the airlines pay us. They get what they pay for."
A representative of another company said employee concentration is important because the X-ray machine used for screening does not automatically beep "every time there is a problem."
Low on the Totem Pole
A woman who works in screening at LAX said her fellow workers feel like "the lowest thing on the totem pole" at the airport. "These girls stand here eight hours a day, they are cursed at and talked to in any manner and we still have to smile--for a minimum wage."
The woman, who did not want her name or employer mentioned, said she feels confident about the quality of security equipment and the effort of the employees.
At Phoenix and Las Vegas, all air carriers use the same security company to screen passengers and baggage.
A spokesman for Holman Security, the company used at McCarran airport, insisted that the FAA tests "are not accurate and don't reflect what we do."
The company that was handling security at Sky Harbor when the FAA tests were run between last September and December was replaced in February at the agreement of Phoenix's airlines because of poor performance, according to an airline employee who oversaw the changeover.
Raymond Salazar, the FAA's top security official, contended that despite the test scores, security at airports is good. Perfection is impossible in light of "the state of art in screening equipment and basic human frailties," he said.
Referring to the nationwide 80% detection rate, Salazar said, "Terrorists and other criminals intent on hijacking or sabotaging an airliner are not going to try when the odds of being detected at the screening checkpoint are at least four out of five."