LOS ANGELES – Federal inspectors who uncovered lapses in airport security over the last decade proposed fines in just one-quarter of the cases, a record critics say underscores weaknesses in oversight of the system that protects the nation’s air travelers.
When the Federal Aviation Administration did move to fine airlines or airports, it sought a total of just $28.5 million over the decade – less than a major airline spends for a week’s worth of jet fuel. And those proposed fines often are reduced substantially in negotiations.
Critics say the fines provide little incentive to the airlines to tighten security.
“It’s cheaper to pay the fines, because they’re negotiable, than to pay for the corrective measures that would eliminate the need for fines,” said Charles Slepian, a New York attorney who specializes in aviation cases.
While it has not been determined that lax screening played any role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the deadly hijackings have focused the attention of the nation and Congress once again on the state of security at the nation’s airports.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is 18th in passenger traffic but sixth in the nation in number of security problems, according to FAA data.
The problem, experts say, is that front-line security screeners are poorly paid and poorly trained. Airports across the country have the same problem, but the booming 1990s economy in the Seattle area may have made it harder for Sea-Tac security to attract and retain skilled employees.
“Clearly, the people involved are doing something wrong. They’ve got the technology at Sea-Tac,” said airport security expert Rick Charles, a Georgia State University associate professor.
“I don’t like to put the blame on those people,” Charles said. “They’re trained really poorly, if at all. The solution is to turn airport security into a national priority and pay the price for it.”
At $10 an hour to start, plus benefits, janitors at Sea-Tac are better paid than security screeners, who make $8.05, with no benefits.
No one is blaming the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on security lapses. The box cutters the terrorists are believed to have used were allowed under old FAA regulations.
An Associated Press analysis of thousands of FAA enforcement records from 1990 through 2000 found that, in most security breaches, the private companies responsible for the safety of the flying public got written warnings rather than fines.
Until the attacks, the sanctions were considered effective, FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said.
“Now, things definitely have changed,” Takemoto said from Washington, D.C. “This is not the same environment we had before.”
Over the decade, a period when air travel increased 43 percent to 666 million passengers a year, the FAA logged more than 19,500 lapses in passenger screening and terminal security, but proposed fines in only 26 percent of the cases.
The lapses ranged from record-keeping violations to letting passengers check in without answering required questions about their baggage to failing to detect weapons hidden in carry-on bags by government inspectors.
When the government ordered passenger screening in 1973 after a spate of hijackings, it gave responsibility to the airlines, which typically contract the job out to security companies.
Historically, the screeners hired by the airlines failed to detect 20 percent of dangerous objects hidden in baggage by inspectors, according to a report last year by the General Accounting Office.
In one headline-grabbing lapse, screeners failed to detect a 6-inch hunting knife toted by an Alaska Airlines passenger on a San Francisco-Seattle flight until the man took off his socks and began cleaning his toenails with it.
When the FAA does propose fines, they’re often reduced substantially in negotiations.
For example, when an undercover FAA agent managed to walk into a secure area of Detroit Metropolitan Airport in January 1998, the agency proposed an $11,000 fine. The complaint was settled for $6,000.
The AP examined records of the FAA’s Enforcement Information System covering all reported cases of enforcement actions by the agency at airports from 1990 through 2000. Most enforcement actions resulted from inspections or surveillance by the FAA, while some originated with local law enforcement agencies.
While the records show lapses in the system, they don’t allow an overall assessment of how effective the screening really is. For example, there’s no way to count weapons that passengers actually slipped through.
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