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KANSAS CITY, Mo.-Despite the enhanced security measures that have been implemented at U.S. airports since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, airports continue to be vulnerable, according to an airport executive and an underwriter.
And some new federal rules designed to further improve airport security by year end likely will not be as effective as intended, the executive and underwriter warned during a panel discussion at the Aviation Insurance Assn.'s 26th annual conference, held in Kansas City, Mo., last week.
During the question-and-answer portion of the discussion, Lloyd's aviation underwriter Christopher Hancock said, "I am concerned and very alarmed about what I've heard this morning, as an underwriter."
Mr. Hancock, aviation underwriting director at syndicate 435, managed by Faraday Underwriting Ltd., asked the panel for some reassurance about airport security. But the panelists told him only that certain security exposures are being investigated and that any future action would have to be weighed against concerns that travelers may not tolerate much longer delays.
A few months after the terrorist attacks, a new law-the Aviation and Transportation Security Act-federalized security for all forms of transportation in the United States and created the Transportation Security Administration to head that effort.
Russell C. Widmar, the director of aviation at Kansas City International Airport, expressed several concerns about the TSA and its security approach.
At the core of his concerns are doubts about whether the federal government will be able to create an effective security agency with 70,000 employees by the end of the year. Mr. Widmar noted that the management at Southwest Airlines Co., a successful Dallas-based air carrier, has taken decades to grow the airline's employee base to about half that size.
Mr. Widmar raised questions about some specific TSA airport security mandates. He complained that some mandated security measures are difficult and expensive to implement and that they are not sufficiently redundant to prevent a security breach if a security measure fails.
For example, Mr. Widmar said, the TSA requires that about 420 U.S. airports by year end install equipment to examine checked baggage for explosives. But he noted that, through April, only 10% of the required number of machines had been installed. He questioned whether the two manufacturers producing the equipment would be able to deliver the remaining equipment in time to meet the TSA deadline.
Mr. Widmar also criticized the effort that began last week to federalize all airport security personnel. "We think this is the wrong approach," he said. He asserted that the TSA has not had sufficient time to train officers to take over airport security checkpoints, and he said that the better approach would be to have federal oversight of private security screeners.
Mr. Widmar said another concern that "airport leadership" has with the TSA is that it is not making allowances in its security approach for the diverse characteristics of the nation's airports-such as the widely varying number of security checkpoints at airports.
He also criticized the TSA for focusing more on potentially threatening objects rather than potential human security threats.
Mr. Widmar advocated the standard use of automated "fusion biometrics" personal identification systems. Such a system could scan the image and fingerprints of a suspicious individual and generate a score or probability that the individual is a risk.
The problem with some current identification systems is that if either the image or the fingerprint scan does not positively identify the suspicious individual as a risk, the systems report only that the individual is not a known risk.
Meanwhile, other potential weak links in airport security are not being strengthened in general, said Stephen P. Dinsdale, a senior vp with the Aerospace-Airport & Special Risk Unit of ACE USA in New Orleans.
Mr. Dinsdale complained that the federal government and the TSA are paying too little attention to airport perimeters and parking areas. He said that the individuals who drop off passengers should be subject to tighter security measures, such as vehicle searches.
"We see that as a significant exposure to the airport," if airports are held liable for security problems, Mr. Dinsdale said.
Mr. Widmar said that violations of travelers' civil liberties are potential exposures that airports face as they develop methods to move so-called "premium passengers" through security. He noted that other travelers already have complained about the shorter security lines that are created sometimes for premium passengers.
"I'm not sure I like it, except when I fly first class. Then I like it," Mr. Widmar said.
Meanwhile, insurers and airports are unclear how much liability for security breakdowns and violations of travelers' civil liberties the airports will retain as the TSA ramps up, Messrs. Dinsdale and Widmar said.
"We're in complete unknown territory" regarding the underwriting of those risks, Mr. Dinsdale said.
He also noted that many airports are not covered for terrorism losses. Mr. Dinsdale pointed out that efforts are underway to create captive insurance coverage for airports' terrorism risk, but he questioned whether airports could underwrite the risk when insurers cannot. "I don't know," he said.
During a question-and-answer session with the audience, syndicate 435's Mr. Hancock suggested that U.S. airports could impose much more stringent security.
He noted that travelers who embark from the Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport must arrive four hours before their flights to clear security-about double the time that travelers must allow when flying out of U.S. airports.
Mr. Widmar responded that creating a four-hour wait "would be difficult" for airline and airports. Commercial airlines already have lost customers because of current delays, he said.
Considering that most flights in the United States are short-haul trips, Mr. Widmar predicted that even longer airport delays would compel many travelers to turn to the rail system. A similar trend already has developed in Europe, he said.
Mr. Widmar acknowledged that inspecting automobiles at airports should be considered, "but it will be a while before we have a solid grasp on the situation," he said.
Phil Freeman, deputy underwriter for Lloyd's syndicate 2001, managed by Amlin Underwriting Ltd., moderated the session.