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Attention, Airport Officials

July 06, 2002

A Times article Friday on peaceful July 4 celebrations nationally pretty much said it all: "Other than a shooting attack at Los Angeles International Airport that left three people dead.... " Other than that? Actually, that is an apt measure of how far and fast we've had to come in a new age of domestic terrorism. Airline, airport and city security forces moved swiftly and lethally, subduing Thursday's airport threat almost as soon as it emerged. Good work.

There are, of course, still questions, some semantic: What exactly constitutes terrorism? What if El Al Israel Airlines had not had armed guards at its ticket counter? Indeed, most airlines across the world do not have armed guards at counters.

This incident, temporarily stunning the world's third-busiest airport, revealed that we have further to go in adjusting institutions for new security realities. Mayor James K. Hahn made a prompt reassuring appearance. "Security," he said, "is an evolving science." True.

Here are some fast initial lessons from Thursday's violence.

Hahn should consider more and earlier security checks as he develops his airport plan. And obviously, authorities and agencies need to better handle collateral civilian damage from such paralyzing incidents or even mere threats. Thousands of would-be passengers, including harried parents with small children, spent endless, empty hours seeking information, food and comfort. People adjust to inconvenience, as in their patience with new security procedures. But the image of thousands of milling, tired, hungry, even angry would-be LAX passengers will not help lift air traffic and tourism from their post-9/11 slump.

Airports and airlines need contingency plans to communicate far better with stranded passengers and serve their needs after an incident. An abandoned backpack, much less a gunman, provokes a security frenzy that can take hours to unravel. The Homeland Security Office should start developing a template for local officials. Traveling parents can't portage an infant plus a full day of supplies. You need a boarding pass to reach a restaurant, so parents Thursday had to feed youngsters whatever newsstand junk was available.

What about Salvation Army-style mobile canteens to provide basic sustenance and comfort? And mini-SWAT teams of airport workers on call to better disseminate calming information? Armed officials yelling, "You must leave now! This is not a request!" in an international terminal in English only was less than helpful.

As the science of security evolves, we'll learn better that in the struggle against terrorism and the contagious virus of fear, preparation and common-sense communications can also be high-caliber weapons.

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