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Foiled attack heightens airport security scrutiny

Foiled attack heightens airport security scrutiny

Airline passenger security is primarily the responsibility of the Transportation Security Administration and procedural changes in light of a failed terrorism attack will remain in its hands, experts say.

While airlines could enhance their security procedures beyond the TSA requirements, they are unlikely to do so in light of their own fragile financial condition, observers say.

However, the TSA also works closely with airport management, one airport manager said.

Airline security is receiving intense scrutiny since the Christmas incident in which Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly failed to set off explosives aboard a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit.

An al-Qaida branch claimed responsibility for the attack, which President Barack Obama called a “systemic failure” of the nation's systems to thwart extremists.

The incident led to calls for enhanced security, but “the TSA has taken away the security responsibility from the airlines to screen passengers,” said Douglas R. Laird, president of Reno, Nev.-based Laird & Associates Inc., an aviation industry security consulting firm.

In addition, while the airport is responsible for “the rules regarding how high the fence should be” and whether the lighting is adequate, the TSA conducts inspections to make sure its rules are followed, Mr. Laird said.

Jeffrey Price, a principal with Arvada, Colo.-based aviation management training and consulting firm Leading Edge Strategies, said, “Some of this will fall on the shoulders of the airlines with respect to implementing different procedures as TSA develops them, but I really think a lot of this is going to fall on TSA and less on airports and airlines.”

“U.S. air carriers are responsible for their security even when conducting an international flight, but still, there's only so much they really can do, and they're really at the mercy of the country they're departing from in terms of security measures,” Mr. Price said. “TSA does inspections and makes sure that the airlines are (complying with) the minimum security requirements by international standards, but there's not much else that is done right now.

“What may change in the future is, U.S. air carriers may be required to implement more of their own security measures at the checkpoints for these international flights, rather than letting the international community do all the screening. I could see that being a potential change,” he said.

The industry's finances likely would significantly affect how much airlines would be willing to do beyond what is required, some observers say.

Charlie LeBlanc, president of Houston-based risk management services firm ASI Group Inc., said, “I think they can give input (to the TSA), but you're also dealing with an industry that has been affected by the economy, so...if airlines come up with different ideas of trying to secure (airplanes), is the government going to look at them to pay?”

Observers point to El Al Israel Airlines, which uses security measures that include thorough checks of each passenger and opening every carry-on bag, but say U.S. airlines are unlikely to follow El Al's approach.

“I don't know if American-flag carriers are willing to take that step because of the cost implications of that. They would much rather have TSA take those steps,” Mr. LeBlanc said.

Amir Lechner, a partner at New York-based ThreatRate Risk Management, agreed. “They will wait for the TSA. I doubt anybody will do anything they are not forced to do.”

Mr. Lechner said it would not be economically feasible for the much larger U.S. airlines to introduce the same security measures as El Al. The huge airlines carry so many passengers that “it doesn't make any sense,” he said.

Henri Chase, managing principal at Frederick, Md.-based Integrity Consulting Solutions L.L.C., also said he does not believe U.S. airlines will follow El Al's approach. He said U.S. passengers “aren't going to sacrifice their time or their convenience for that level of security, unfortunately.”

In a statement, Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines Inc. said, “American Airlines has not changed any of its onboard customer policies.” A spokesman for Chicago-based United Airlines Inc. said it is complying with TSA directives.

Robert Baker, professor in Prescott, Ariz.-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's global security and intelligence program, said one thing airports can do is “provide more awareness training,” teaching their employees to promptly report if they “saw someone in the wrong place or acting strangely.”

In addition, when airports do new construction, they can “make sure they provide adequate space for the new technologies in passenger screening,” Mr. Baker said.

Jim Keane, general manager of operations safety, safety and inspection for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said, “Airport security is a multiagency function and involves close cooperation” between the Port Authority, which operates area airports, and the TSA.

“Whenever we become aware of a threat either here or abroad, as happened on Christmas Day, we immediately enhance security at all the airports we operate,” which are John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia in New York; Stewart International in Newburgh, N.Y.; and Newark Liberty International and Teterboro airports in New Jersey. “In this case, that enhanced security included adding additional policy patrols and canine units,” said Mr. Keane.

New York Gov. David Paterson also deployed National Guard units to JFK, said Mr. Keane, who also is second vp of the Washington-based Airports Council International-North America's Insurance and Risk Management Committee.

In a statement, ACI-NA President Greg Principato said, “ACI-NA several months ago initiated an industry/government effort to review current procedures and policies. This type of review is needed and, I believe, reform in the basic statute enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is overdue.”

Mr. Principato said airports “strongly support the president's call to focus on moving toward a more technology-intensive security regime.”