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How Did Hijackers Get Past Airport Security?

From buying tickets to storming cockpits, the suspects never skirted the system; they simply walked through its loopholes.

September 23, 2001|This story was reported and written by Times staff writers Michael A. Hiltzik, David Willman, Alan C. Miller, Eric Malnic, Peter Pae, Ralph Frammolino and Russell Carollo

Experts in the U.S. emphasize that a high ratio of CAPS-selected passengers on a plane does not indicate that the flight is unsafe. Nor does a low rate mean the opposite: Whether by luck or design, Luckey says, the hijackers apparently evaded selection.

"There are technical reasons why the old CAPS [the system in place prior to Sept. 11] wouldn't have selected these guys." Luckey says. He noted that many of the suspected hijackers had been in the country for some time "and had a lot of commonalities not germane to tripping CAPS."

Another flaw is that CAPS was never well integrated with the rest of the security system. Passengers without checked baggage, for example, would already have passed through a carry-on checkpoint before gate agents would be alerted by their computer screens that the passengers were selectees.

In practice, the gate agents often disregarded the alert, assuming that the passengers had already been screened, according to airline sources. "I'd guess that before Tuesday, the gate agent would not have done anything further," says Reynold Hoover, a Jacksonville, Fla., aviation security professional.

Many professionals expect CAPS to play a much greater role in airport security, especially if it can be well integrated with other elements of the system.

Asked what he would expect if CAPS noted that several "selectees" boarding a flight had purchased one-way tickets or paid cash, one security official at a major airport responded: "I'd expect a team of sky marshals to be deployed on that flight."

Apart from the CAPS program, the only airline passengers whose names are routinely screened against law enforcement lists are foreigners entering the country. Their names are run through an Immigration and Naturalization Service database of individuals who law enforcement agencies have determined should be questioned or detained because they are criminals or a security risk.

There is no such systematic screening for individuals traveling within the United States. When law enforcement and intelligence agencies deem someone a potential threat to airlines, they may provide a name and other information to the FAA or the airlines.

Former FAA security official Flynn said that, in his experience, the FAA "would appropriately and promptly inform the air carriers and sometimes direct them to take appropriate actions, depending on the information."

In the case of two of the suspected hijackers aboard American Flight 77, the FBI had given their names in the weeks prior to the attack to the INS to include on its watch list because they were linked to terrorist groups, only to learn that the men were already in the country. The FBI did not provide their names to the airlines, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

The Insecure Cockpit

Clear weather, early morning flying times: The elements were in place for smooth departures Sept. 11 for the four targeted airliners. All took off with the cockpit doors closed and locked--standard operating procedure on FAA-regulated flights. Within an hour of takeoff, investigators believe, each flight had been commandeered.

How the hijackers entered the cockpits may never be precisely known. As The Times previously reported, at some point early in United Flight 93, which left Newark 42 minutes after its scheduled 8 a.m. departure, a ground controller heard someone in the cockpit exclaim: "Hey, get out of here."

That suggests an intruder took the pilots by surprise, which may explain why pilots in at least two planes had no time to broadcast an emergency "7500" code indicating a hijacking in progress. On American Flight 11, four of the five suspected hijackers booked seats along the Boeing 767's left aisle, which leads directly to the cockpit door. One suspect's seat was 2B, which provides one of the best vantages for observing and quickly reaching the cockpit.

Security experts say that among the most shocking elements of the hijackings was the apparent ease with which the hijackers gained control of the cockpits. History says the experts should not be surprised.

"Cockpit incursions," to use the industry term, were hardly unknown in civil aviation even before this month's hijackings. At least five times in the last two years, passengers bent on mayhem were able to burst into an aircraft's cockpit on a commercial flight. In several cases, the intruder's goal was to attack a crew member, and in some cases, control of the plane was compromised.

Perhaps the best-known attempt occurred in August 2000, when a passenger trying to break into the cockpit of a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City was fatally beaten by others on board. None of the passengers was charged in the death.

In March 2000, a man burst into the cockpit on a flight from Tenerife, Spain, to Berlin and tried to crash the plane before the crew wrestled the controls away from him.

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