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Federal Screeners Are Now on Duty at JFK

July 19, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — The federal Transportation Security Administration has quietly begun screening passengers at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, the busiest airport yet to shift away from private security.

Teams from the air security agency began operating at three JFK terminals on July 9, the day President Bush traveled here to address business leaders about the scandals that have shaken the stock market. The airport handled 29.4 million passengers and 1.4 million tons of cargo last year.

As a principal gateway to the nation's largest city, Kennedy International has always enjoyed a high profile, which has only been magnified by concerns following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Those concerns were further heightened this week when police in Spain arrested three suspected members of Al Qaeda who possessed extensive surveillance videotapes of possible terrorist targets in the United States.

Sources said the tapes contained footage of Kennedy International.

Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the deployment took place earlier this month, adding that a key priority at Kennedy is recruiting enough screeners who can meet federal requirements and complete training.

The government plans to hire more than 50,000 screeners by Nov. 19 to operate metal detectors and run sophisticated explosives-detection equipment at 429 airports. Both the task and the deadline are daunting. Passengers at U.S. airports check 1 billion bags a year.

A federal security director also will be hired for each airport.

Many of the new federal screeners at Kennedy received on-the-job training at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where the new federal system made its debut earlier this year.

One lesson from that experience is that significant differences exist among airports that can affect security.

After the screeners found that some metal detectors were being unplugged at BWI, the decision was made to hard-wire the machines into the ceiling. But the Transportation Security Administration found that this would be impossible at some airports because their ceilings are too high.

Goldman reported from New York, Alonso-Zaldivar from Washington.

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