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Most Limo, Bus Drivers at LAX Not Screened

Safety: Background checks are required for airport cabdrivers but not for limousine and shuttle operators.

October 27, 2001|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only some of the hundreds of commercial drivers who pick up passengers at Los Angeles International Airport have undergone security background checks, despite having access to the terminal's curbs that have been made off-limits to the driving public.

Limousine and shuttle bus drivers are not required to undergo special screenings for their jobs, unlike taxi drivers, who for years have had their backgrounds scrutinized, officials said.

Since the East Coast terrorist attacks, the checks on airport cabdrivers have been redoubled, with their records being shipped to the FBI. But LAX officials said they have only begun to consider whether such reviews are needed for limo and shuttle bus drivers too.

"We are looking at what options may exist for providing an added measure of screening for commercial vehicles," said LAX spokesman Paul Haney.

Although no specific risks have been identified involving drivers of taxis, shuttles or limousines, every aspect of security at LAX has come under scrutiny since the Sept. 11 attacks. Some in the public have wondered why they cannot drive up to terminals when unscreened professional drivers can.

Airport officials have kept private vehicles away from the curbs because of a Federal Aviation Administration rule that requires police to evacuate everyone within 300 feet of any vehicle that is left unattended even momentarily.

Haney said cabs, shuttles and limousines are allowed at the curb because professional drivers are less likely to leave their vehicles unattended than the general public. Airport attendants stand on the curb to monitor the flow of cabs.

Because terrorists had plotted to plant a bomb at LAX just before New Year's Day 2000, authorities said they believe the airport could still be a target. LAX administrators have since imposed some of the nation's toughest security measures.

The airport closed Sept. 11 and 12. When it reopened Sept. 13, private cars were banned from the central terminal area and were permitted only to pick up and drop off passengers at remote parking lots. Although the terminal area was reopened to private vehicles last week, they are limited to the lanes farthest from the terminals and are permitted to pick up and drop off passengers only within parking structures.

In an attempt to keep closer tabs on the thousands of commercial vehicles that enter the airport, taxis, shuttles and limousines are required to pass a police checkpoint when they enter the airport from a dedicated ramp on 96th Street.

But on a recent afternoon, two officers who sat on folding chairs at the checkpoint simply waved the paid drivers into the airport. One of the officers, who asked to remain anonymous, said he believes each commercial driver who enters the airport should be required to show identification.

Haney said airport officials have not ordered such scrutiny because it is "not warranted at this point." He added that commercial vehicles pass through the airport about 25,000 times per day and that stoping each one could bring airport traffic to a standstill.

He said that all commercial vehicles that enter the airport are subject to random searches. Several cab drivers confirmed that they have been stopped by airport police within the airport and ordered to provide identification.

Only taxicabs licensed by Los Angeles and bear a city seal can pick up passengers at LAX. Cabs licensed by other cities are barred from the curb area and can only drop off passengers in parking structures.

Los Angeles requires each taxi driver to undergo a criminal background check, conducted by the California Department of Justice and dating back seven years. The city also checks the applicants' driving records and requires them to show proof they can work legally in the United States.

City officials recently submitted the names of all 3,500 licensed cab drivers to the FBI for further screening. In addition, the city's taxi companies have jointly hired several off-duty police officers to scrutinize the drivers and search the cabs as they wait in a holding area outside the LAX terminals, according to a taxi firm representative.

Several drivers interviewed at the taxi holding area said the extra scrutiny has not been overly obtrusive.

"I look like I'm from the Middle East, but nobody bothers me," said Levon Arutyunyan, a native of Armenia who has driven a taxi for 17 years.

But some drivers apparently have tried to reduce the chances of raising suspicion from authorities or skittish travelers.

One driver, a Muslim whose identification card shows him wearing a turban and a long black beard, wore a plain black baseball cap as he pulled into the airport recently. Several other drivers have decorated their cabs with small American flags.

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