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Hahn's LAX Safety Plan Called Weak

The mayor aims to improve airport security, but experts say suggested technology is incomplete or untested and cite a lack of funding and manpower.

November 17, 2003|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Although Mayor James K. Hahn has said improving security is the most important element of his $9-billion plan to update Los Angeles International Airport, security experts have criticized nearly every aspect of the proposal -- and some suggest LAX might be safer without the upgrade than with it.

Among the cited deficiencies: The security system would rely in part on technology that isn't completely developed or that has failed repeated trials, and it would use several existing methods in ways that could render them ineffective.

In addition, the security component of Hahn's plan is said to be short on detail and to account inadequately for the cost of new safety measures or the manpower necessary to monitor them.

As the City Council begins to review reams of public comment in preparation for its consideration next year of the mayor's plan, known as Alternative D, security concerns will be pivotal.

"This seems to be the weakest link of support for Alternative D," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, whose district includes communities next to the airport. "It's based on security and a whole new security revamp, post-9/11, but there are more questions than answers."

The mayor's office says the security details will be worked out as consultants start preliminary design work on the LAX proposal in the coming months. At 3,500 acres, LAX isn't big enough to handle federal security requirements, and problems can't be fixed by reinforcing concrete and adding impact-resistant glass, Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards said in an interview.

"We simply don't have the space to implement any of the security protocols, so we end up with pylons and checking vehicles out on Century and Sepulveda and it's basically hit and miss," Edwards said. "With this alternative, we will be able to run this airport at maximum capacity at the highest level of security, so when national security levels go from yellow to orange, we don't have to change a thing."

The mayor's plan would dramatically rework LAX by demolishing Terminals 1, 2 and 3, moving two sets of parallel runways farther apart, replacing parking garages with a new terminal complex and building a passenger check-in center near the San Diego Freeway.

Since he introduced his LAX plan two years ago, Hahn has argued that the upgrade is necessary to fortify the airport against terrorist attacks. Security is paramount at the world's fifth-busiest airport, which has been named the state's No. 1 terrorist target by the California attorney general's office. Officials foiled a plot to blow up a terminal at LAX in December 1999, when an Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, was arrested at the Canadian border with a load of explosives in his car trunk.

The bottom line in the debate over the mayor's plan: How much security is enough?

The Rand Corp. fired the opening salvo in May, when it released a report arguing that the proposal would make travelers more vulnerable to attacks. The report, commissioned by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), said that by concentrating people at a new check-in center, the redesign would provide a ready target for luggage bombs, shoulder-fired missiles or chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. City officials have said the remote check-in center is necessary to remove private vehicles -- and thus the threat of car bombs -- from the central terminal area.

To rebut the Rand report, the city's airport agency hired San Diego-based Security Applications International Corp., or SAIC, in June and paid it $248,100 to review Hahn's plan. The assignment involved SAIC, a private firm involved in sensitive security work for the federal government, in a behind-the-scenes debate with Rand, a Santa Monica nonprofit known for its security research.

SAIC concluded that the mayor's proposal would make LAX more secure by dispersing passengers among several remote facilities, including the check-in center, a consolidated rental car facility proposed for a corner of Parking Lot C, and a transportation center that would connect the Green Line to an elevated train near the Century Freeway and Aviation Boulevard.

Rand disagreed and said that the agencies had based their conclusions on different sets of assumptions.

"Their starting point, in terms of threat assessment, seems to be the car bomb.... They don't appear to have gone much beyond that particular threat," said K. Jack Riley, an expert in public safety and justice at Rand and a supervisor of its study. "We looked at a much broader spectrum of threats, both historical and theoretical, in terms of other types of attacks that could plausibly be used in the future."

SAIC has countered that explosives present the greatest threat to LAX, and that attacks using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons are highly unlikely.

In a 40-page report included as an appendix to Hahn's 11-volume airport master plan, SAIC contends that changing the way people reach LAX would help prevent an attack from shutting down the airport.

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