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Airport Security Stakes Rising

Aviation: Air travelers are likely to find even longer waits and more intrusive searches as the federal government takes over screening.

July 07, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Fourth of July shootings at Los Angeles International Airport raise the stakes for the federal government as it plunges into a major security makeover at airports around the country.

The violence only underscores how difficult it will be for the new and untested Transportation Security Administration to find the few intent on causing harm among the millions of people who fly daily.

The task of "federalizing" 429 airports with different layouts, travel patterns and threats will be a vastly complicated undertaking that could encumber travel, especially during peak times, industry and government officials warn.

They predict longer lines and more intrusive searches as federal screeners take over hundreds of security checkpoints during this summer travel season and into the fall. And more delays by the end of the year, when millions of passengers will have to open their checked luggage to be inspected for explosives.

"Eventually, we should have one of the safest systems in the world, but getting there is a hassle," said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. "Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you have the possibility of a complete meltdown."

At the center of the security takeover is the TSA, a huge new law enforcement agency. Still unknown to many Americans, its employees will be picking through people's carry-ons and asking some passengers to step aside to be patted down.

Congress has placed sky-high demands on the new agency: Create a system that will screen 670 million travelers and 1 billion checked bags a year in ways that cannot easily be undermined by terrorists. And install it by New Year's Eve.

The goal might never have been realistic, and the agency is already behind the curve. It will need an estimated 33,000 screeners to check passengers and an additional 30,000 to examine luggage. It has deployed fewer than 3,000. Thousands of bomb detection units that the agency is buying may have to be replaced in a few years by automated machines that don't require bags to be opened.

On Saturday, TSA officials said the agency plans to eventually extend its reach to ticket lobbies, garages and other public areas of the airport now patrolled by local and state police. It's always been part of the congressional mandate, said a spokesman, but there is no timetable yet for widespread deployment of armed TSA police officers and undercover agents.

Gov. Gray Davis believes installing such guards "is the logical next step" in tightening security, his spokesman, Steve Maviglio, said Saturday. He said the issue has been under discussion.

Last week, an Egyptian immigrant opened fire at an El Al ticket counter at LAX, killing two people before an airline security guard fatally shot him. It raised new concerns about security before passengers ever get to a security checkpoint.

"Our responsibility for aviation security extends from the perimeter of the airport ... to checkpoints and beyond, in fact, to the successful conclusion of each and every flight," a TSA statement said.

Airline and airport executives, however, fear that the security agency will turn out like a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Detective Sipowicz--an unpredictable combination of hapless bumbler and bullheaded cop.

TSA officials respond that federal security will be intelligent, thorough and customer-friendly. Its better-trained but unproven screeners will replace private security employees.

Yet within the aviation community, a consensus has formed that the TSA risks harming the very industry it was set up to protect. The agency's leadership is perceived by some critics as isolated and unresponsive, heavy on law enforcement and military veterans who have little experience with the complex choreography of aviation.

"You have bright, intelligent people with unimpeachable law enforcement backgrounds," said David Plavin, head of Airports Council International, a major trade group. "But they don't know anything about transportation and they don't understand what it means to keep the system moving. The first year or two of this process is going to be messy and ugly under the best of circumstances."

Delta Air Lines estimates the industry will lose $3.8 billion in revenue this year because of people not flying to avoid the "hassle factor" of security.

In an interview, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta defended the security efforts. "I don't think TSA has the tin ear the airports and airlines accuse it of having," he said. "I think they are now listening."

Returning to the previous security system is out of the question, Mineta added. "Security was minimal before," he said. "There was no consistency and uniformity."

The new system is on view at Baltimore-Washington International, the first major airport to be "federalized" with government screeners.

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