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Some Fear Confusion Still Rules the Skies

But agencies responsible for air defense say recent communications breakdowns were aberrations and that security is greatly improved since Sept. 11.

June 26, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — More than 1,500 times since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, fighter jets have been scrambled or diverted to intercept airplanes that raised security alarms.

"Before 9/11, the FAA had to pick up a phone and alert us," said Lt. Joel Harper, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Now "when there is a [radar] track of interest, the FAA and our folks see that at the same time."

But the sense of reassurance that should come from such aggressive responses has been punctured by recent communications breakdowns in which officials frantically tried to determine if another airplane attack could be imminent.

A false hijacking alarm at Los Angeles International Airport in May, a June 4 incident involving a photography flight over New York and an episode that led to the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol amid preparations for former President Reagan's funeral have prompted concerns that communications flaws persist.

Under current procedures, civilian air traffic controllers from the Federal Aviation Administration work at the NORAD headquarters, deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., and military personnel monitor civilian radar and communications.

Still, "there appear to be recurring problems with coordination and communication between the various federal agencies involved in air defense," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said this week at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on aviation security. "Almost three years after 9/11, such basic breakdowns in the systems designed to protect our country from airborne threats are unacceptable."

Officials at the FAA and NORAD said such incidents were aberrations in a system that could hardly be compared to what existed before the attacks. At that time, NORAD was focused solely on responding to attack from a hostile foreign military. Terrorism was considered chiefly a problem for law enforcement, not the armed forces.

"All of these communications involve humans, and everyone wants the system to operate perfectly," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. "Most of the time it operates extremely well.... What always gets the attention is the one error."

Many security alerts involve small private planes whose pilots inadvertently fly into restricted airspace.

The FAA is working with private pilots groups to educate aviators about the restrictions, which can change from day to day.

There is a consensus that air defense improvements since the terrorist attacks have greatly increased the government's awareness of potential threats and reduced reaction time. With today's safeguards, all four planes hijacked on Sept. 11 would have been shot down, Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, the NORAD commander, told the independent commission investigating intelligence and security lapses leading up to the attacks.

Nonetheless, dealing with a real or suspected hijacking has become more complicated. New federal agencies governed by the Department of Homeland Security are involved. So are local authorities.

Even the ramifications of a hijacking are different: Will the plane be used in a suicide attack? Should the order to shoot it down be given, dooming scores of passengers?

The recent communications lapses had common elements that experts said could often be remedied by better planning and training.

In the New York incident, a plane entered -- and left -- city airspace as the FAA and NORAD were still trying to resolve who was responsible for identifying it. The plane turned out to be on an aerial photography flight.

The incidents at LAX and in Washington were potentially more serious, and critical information that would have dispelled the threat was not shared among all agencies. As a result, some authorities could not rule out the possibility of an imminent attack and were compelled to take action.

On May 3, Singapore Airlines Flight 20 was escorted to LAX by an F-16 fighter jet after transmitting a computerized hijack alert. Upon landing, it was directed to a remote section of the airport, where it was met by FBI agents and airport police hostage negotiation and SWAT teams. Officers, with guns drawn, boarded the jet, which was carrying 126 passengers and a crew of 18.

It turned out that a malfunctioning transponder, which sends a plane's identification, altitude and heading to ground controllers, had caused the alert. Federal authorities in Washington had known for at least six hours that there was no hijacking, but failed to notify officials in Los Angeles.

Mayor James K. Hahn fired off a complaint to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. "Given the events of Sept. 11, the close coordination between agencies and existence and use of a tight notification process is critical," Hahn wrote. The incident was "a very poor example of that."

The Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, says it has changed its procedures to ensure that local offices will be notified.

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