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SHOOTING AT LAX

Airline Guards' Response Is Praised

Security: Swift reaction lives up to El Al's reputation and may have saved more lives. But incident raises new questions about safety.

July 05, 2002|GARY POLAKOVIC and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As bloody as the shootings were at Los Angeles International Airport, a quick response by El Al airline security personnel may have prevented a more deadly outcome, officials said Thursday.

Unlike many domestic airlines, El Al, Israel's national airline, has armed personnel on the ground at most of its facilities. Police said that at least two El Al security guards, assisted by a passenger, subdued the gunman in Thursday's attack. One of the security guards shot and killed him. Neither the agents nor the gunman have been identified.

In Israel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres praised the "swift reaction and the courage" of the airline guards in Los Angeles.

Richard Garcia, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office, also credited the quick response by the security personnel with preventing further injuries.

But the incident raised new questions about airport security. While a variety of measures, including random searches, more air marshals and stricter scrutiny of boarding passengers, have been instituted since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, those steps have chiefly focused on protecting aircraft and passengers once they have cleared security gates. There is no screening of people approaching ticket counters.

"We're going to look at this incident to see what we need to do," said Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn. "Our present layout is not designed with security in mind. Security is an evolving science."

El Al prides itself on having the industry's most stringent security, including plainclothes armed guards on every flight, intensive passenger searches, reinforced cockpits, undercover guards in airport terminals and extensive profiling of ticket holders to detect possible terrorists.

Many of those measures trouble civil liberties advocates in the United States. Airline officials, however, note that no El Al flight has been the target of a successful air piracy attempt in more than two decades.

Yet even more security personnel inside airports does not necessarily assure safety. National Guard troops have been deployed at many U.S. airports for months after the Sept. 11 attacks. And not even Israeli security has been enough to thwart some of the deadliest attacks in airline terminals.

In December 1985, Palestinian gunmen opened fire and threw grenades at passengers at the El Al check-in counters at airports in Rome and Vienna, killing 18 people.

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