Airport security: 'A porous system'


Issue: "9/11," Sept. 22, 2001

How could terrorists take over so many airplanes at the same time? How could they murder or incapacitate four cockpit crews nearly simultaneously? How could a terrorist even gain access to an airliner's flight deck-which is locked during flight in accordance with FAA regulations?

One way is that the flight crew, a veteran Airbus captain told WORLD, might invite him in.

As post-9/11America looks for ways to prevent future terrorist attacks, conversations with pilots and aviation experts suggest cockpit access practices are ripe for reform.

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"Jump-seat policies" may have to be the first to go. They allow crew members from other airlines (as well as air traffic controllers) to ride in the extra seat located in the cockpit. That "jump seat" is sometimes used by instructors, technicians, and FAA regulators to qualify pilots or check the accuracy of aircraft instruments during flight. More often, it provides a free ride for other pilots: "If you had somebody who understood jump-seat policies, who posed as a crew member from another airline and presented false identification…," the Airbus captain said, "there are any number of ways he could then incapacitate the crew."

Another possibility for hijackers: Get cockpit keys. According to the Airbus captain, such keys are not difficult to obtain, since flight attendants and even aircraft sanitation workers have access to them. Further, they often are "universal"-one key can open all Boeing cockpit doors in an airline's fleet. Terrorists could gain jobs on sanitation crews, or bribe airline employees, to obtain keys.

Plausible? Consider the track records of some airport employees: A federal judge fined Argenbright Holdings, a firm that employs about 25,000 workers at airports throughout the United States, $1 million in October 2000 after the company falsified training records and background checks for some workers. Some Argenbright staff had criminal records that included drug dealing, aggravated assault, theft, even kidnapping.

Purdue University aviation technology professor Dale Oderman said turnover of airport security personnel is so high that it is not uncommon for contractors to rush training or skip background checks in order to add staff quickly. Alarmingly, the criminal Argenbright workers operated security checkpoints at Philadelphia International Airport.

"We have a very porous system," said Mr. Oderman. "We like to think we're a little better [in the United States] than the rest, but obviously we weren't that day." The sheer volume of passengers pouring daily through U.S. airports makes it difficult to catch a determined criminal: Mr. Oderman estimates that about 2 million travelers pass through U.S. airport security checkpoints every day of the year. "Imagine hand-searching every individual carry-on. We'd need about 25 times the number of security personnel we have now. And I don't know that the American people want their air travel to be like going through a fortress."

Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of Houston-based Air Security, sees that changing-fast. He believes the deaths of thousands of Americans will push the airlines and the FAA toward stringent security measures the flying public will welcome: arming cockpit crews, deploying federal air marshals on random flights, and "profiling," or asking open-ended questions of dubious passengers. "In the past," Mr. LeBlanc said, "airlines have worried about inconveniencing passengers. After what I saw today, I want to be inconvenienced."

Lynn Vincent
Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.


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