WASHINGTON — Warning that "alarming lapses" remain in the nation's air transportation system, the government's chief transportation watchdog announced plans Wednesday to conduct an undercover operation in the next week to ensure tight security measures are in place by the Thanksgiving travel period.
Department of Transportation inspector general Kenneth Mead said that, despite noticeably tighter airport security since terrorists hijacked and crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, "there are still alarming lapses of security and some systemic vulnerabilities that need to be closed."
Testifying before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Mead said nearly 90 security breaches have occurred since Oct. 30, when Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced a "zero-tolerance" policy to enforce rules.
Mead provided only one example: a passenger at Baltimore-Washington International Airport who he said was "testing security" on her own with a box cutter concealed in a makeup kit. The passenger made it through a security checkpoint.
Mead's office declined to provide other examples, citing security concerns, or to identify the airports that have had the most problems.
But during the hearing, lawmakers mentioned several other incidents. Aside from the well-publicized failure of screeners to stop a passenger from carrying knives and a stun gun through a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, those committing breaches include a security officer who briefly left an exit at Boston's Logan Airport unattended and a passenger who arrived in Chicago on a flight from Miami International Airport with two meat cleavers in his carry-on bags.
Mead also said airport security workers are not putting as much checked baggage as they could through bomb detection systems. A survey by his agency of some airports over the Veterans Day weekend found that 73% of the machines were not in continuous use, he said. At one airport, his staff observed one screener, who was scheduled for a 20-hour shift, falling asleep.
Such examples stepped up pressure on House and Senate negotiators to end their stalemate over whether workers screening passengers and baggage at airports should be government or private employees, a dispute that has stalled passage of a sweeping air-travel security bill.
House and Senate negotiators reported making progress Wednesday and are scheduled to resume talks today.
One compromise under consideration would put federal employees in charge of the screening process but allow airports to use some contract employees. These employees would have to meet federal standards.
"Everyone is feeling fairly optimistic" that a deal is in sight, said Andy Davis, an aide to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee.
President Bush and others have pressed Congress to send him an aviation security bill before Thanksgiving to help restore public confidence. Those calls have intensified since the crash in New York on Monday of an American Airlines jet, though no evidence of terrorism has surfaced in that catastrophe.
A bill passed unanimously by the Senate would federalize all airport security personnel. President Bush favors the House measure, which would increase federal oversight of airport security but leave it to the administration to decide whether the personnel should be government or private employees or a mix.
A number of security measures have been taken since the terrorist attacks, such as improving the security of cockpit doors, deploying more air marshals on planes and increasing the use of National Guard troops at airports.
But Mead testified that background checks need to be conducted on all airport employees, citing cases his agency has found in which felons have had access to secure areas.
As part of his office's undercover operation to determine if airports are complying with security rules, Mead said his auditors will test how easily they can gain access to restricted areas at airports. He said his employees will also carry prohibited objects in baggage.
Federal Aviation Administration administrator Jane Garvey, who also testified at the hearing, called it "disturbing" that security lapses continue.