Despite impassioned pleas for help from hundreds of laid-off workers, Los Angeles International Airport officials unanimously agreed Tuesday that it is "prudent and necessary" to continue heightened security precautions, including a ban on private vehicles in the central terminal area.
Security measures at LAX remain among the toughest in the nation because of specific security threats that predated the terrorist attacks on the East Coast. The airport was the target of a millennium bomb plot that was thwarted with the arrest of a terrorist at the U.S.-Canadian border. LAX was also the original destination of the jetliners that slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon 15 days ago.
After a confidential briefing on security issues Tuesday, the city's airport commissioners decided that the ban on private cars will remain in place despite vehement protests from workers and labor leaders that the action is costing people jobs.
"We're being prudent, cautious," one top airport official said after the closed-door session. "We were named as a target" once before, the official said, referring to the bomb plot around New Year's Day 2000.
That experience has put the operators of LAX on edge and influenced their decision to restrict driving, they acknowledged for the first time Tuesday. Airport officials previously said the ban on private vehicles was a result of an FAA order to keep parked cars away from airport terminals.
The airport commission will review security measures again next week after conferring with federal officials. But in the meantime, the ban on private vehicles will remain in place.
With the attacks on New York and the Pentagon still fresh, Los Angeles airport officials are refusing to sacrifice security for convenience by allowing private cars and trucks to drive on the circular road past nine principal terminals.
The restriction on all vehicles except for shuttle buses, vans, taxis and motorists with special handicapped access has added to the lengthy delays experienced by most airline passengers.
It has also caused the layoff of 350 parking lot attendants and cashiers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. Many are unsure how they will pay the rent for October, and they showed up en masse at the commission's meeting to voice their concerns.
Crowding into an airport-area restaurant where the commission met Tuesday, some of the parking lot employees said airport officials went too far in shutting off vehicle access to the terminal area.
But managers of the nation's third-busiest airport said LAX is vulnerable because its upper- and lower-deck roadways and parking structures lie within 300 feet of the terminal buildings, a distance federal officials believe could be unsafe in the event of a car bombing.
Officials also worry that reopening the airport to vehicles while the garages remain closed could cause gridlock on roadways and leave emergency personnel unable to move quickly if an incident occurred.
U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) whose district includes LAX, said in an interview that Ahmed Ressam's trial showed that terrorists targeted the airport less than two years ago. "It is not inappropriate for people to be concerned about LAX," she said.
Weeks before the millennium celebration, authorities arrested Ressam, an Algerian militant and an associate of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, in connection with a plot to detonate a bomb around New Year's Day 2000.
Ressam was arrested at a dock in Port Angeles, Wash., with bomb-making chemicals, explosives and homemade timing devices in his car as he arrived on a ferry from Victoria, Canada. Ressam was convicted in April of conspiring with at least three others to place a suitcase packed with powerful explosives in a crowded LAX terminal.
Late last month, a federal grand jury in New York indicted a London-based Algerian and accused him of masterminding that plot. The indictment named Bin Laden, although he was not charged with a crime.
Airport officials said such specific threats have made them extra careful since the Sept. 11 attacks on the East Coast.
Emerging from the closed-door briefing, airport commission President Ted Stein said the panel voted unanimously "to endorse as prudent and necessary all of the security measures being taken at LAX at this time."
The commission also directed the airport's staff to develop alternatives that might involve reopening the central terminal area and parking structures to traffic.
Lydia Kennard, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, said the airport was never designed for the volume of vehicles--100,000 on a normal day--that crowd the roads around the terminal buildings.
As she spoke, it was evident that security considerations ran head-on into the concerns of airport employees, particularly those who work in the parking garages, restaurants and retail stores.