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Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
[ Send this story to a friend | Easy-print version ]


FAA finds Logan security among worst in US

By Matthew Brelis and Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 9/26/2001


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Recent US terrorist threats

A decade's worth of federal data show that Logan International Airport has one of the worst security records among major airports. And Logan has by far the nation's worst record for the most serious violation: the number of times federal agents have slipped guns and dummy bombs through security checkpoints for which the airlines are responsible.

From 1991 through 2000, Federal Aviation Administration agents testing the airlines' passenger screening at Logan managed to slip 234 guns and inert hand grenades and bombs past checkpoint guards or through their X-ray machines. That is three times as many as at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. O'Hare has nearly three times as many passengers.

Overall, Logan's security record is dismal, the data suggest. With 13.7 million departing passengers annually, Logan is the nation's 18th busiest airport. But it has the fifth-highest number of security violations recorded by the FAA between 1991 and 2000, according to a Globe computer-assisted analysis of the FAA's database.

In assessing the data, it is not clear whether the nation's airports received equal scrutiny from FAA investigators. An FAA spokeswoman refused to comment on the frequency of security testing. The FAA records, for example, contain no hint whether agents used weapons tests more frequently at Logan than at other airports. But over a decade, according to aviation officials, broad conclusions about an airport's overall security record can be drawn from the FAA data.

Virginia Buckingham, executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs the airport, said the FAA data suggest strongly that the federal government should take over responsibility for airport security.

But Massport has its own security problems. It received intensified FAA scrutiny after a July 1999 incident in which a 17-year-old Brookline youth climbed a Logan perimeter fence, walked 2 miles across restricted areas, and successfully stowed away aboard a British Airways flight, in business class. In 1999 and 2000, Massport - not its airlines - logged more security violations than any other US airport authority.

But in one important respect, Logan is little different from other airports: The vast majority of its violations were logged by the airlines themselves, not the Port Authority, whose leaders have faced withering criticism in the political backwash that has followed the terrorist attacks. Two of the four hijacked flights - the two that hit the World Trade Center towers - originated in Boston.

Overall, the worst security record belongs to the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport - fourth in passengers with 30.3 million, but first in violations, according to the FAA data. Conversely, the country's two busiest airports, Atlanta's Hartsfield and Chicago's O'Hare, have two of the lowest rates of FAA security violations.

The FAA violations cover a wide range of infractions, from the mundane - like employees' identification badges not being visible and paperwork being unaccounted for - to more serious instances in which security personnel failed to detect weapons and FAA agents gained access to planes.

The same FAA database also ranks individual airlines, which hire private security companies to staff their checkpoints, most often with low-wage workers with minimal training. Over the 10 years, American Airlines had the worst record.

Two of the hijacked planes were American flights. The other two were United Air Lines flights. United has the third-worst security record among major airlines. Although the FAA statistics underscore what government officials now acknowledge, that airport security has been too porous, there is no evidence that the hijackers brought anything through the checkpoints that should have aroused scrutiny. Until Sept. 11, knives smaller than 4 inches long could be carried by passengers.

An American Airlines spokesman said the airline would have no comment on the FAA records.

Given the laxity of security, many aviation specialists believe that all major airports, Logan included, are vulnerable to the sorts of breaches that facilitated the Sept. 11 hijackings.

''Boston is not so much worse, or other airports are not so much better, as to have any major difference,'' said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based passengers group that monitors aviation safety. ''It is a system set up for failure. By laying security requirements onto companies that are there for profit, there is no motivation to exceed the minimum standards by the FAA.''

Jeffrey P. Fegan, the chief executive officer of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, said in an interview on Sunday that his airport's own security force is excellent - even though the FAA records show that DFW has had the country's highest number of security violations.

''We are only as good as the airlines that operate here,'' Fegan said. And American, with the worst security record of any airline, is the dominant carrier at DFW.

The most worrisome numbers for Logan Airport are for the most serious violations. The FAA security statistics suggest that Boston's airport is - by a substantial margin - the nation's most porous when FAA agents test airport defenses periodically, by posing as passengers while trying to carry weapons and dummy bombs through security checkpoints.

Logan, for example, had far more such violations - 234 - than Newark International and Washington Dulles Airports, where the terrorists hijacked the other two flights. Over the same decade, FAA testers sneaked just 48 of those objects through security at Newark, and 51 at Dulles. Overall, Newark has a better than average security record, while Dulles's is subpar, but not nearly as bad as Logan's.

While it is possible that Logan's defenses were probed more often than other airports, an official with knowledge of FAA requirements said lax security at the airport's checkpoints is the only logical explanation for Boston's high failure rate. Every checkpoint at every major airport, the official said, is supposed to be tested monthly.

Agents at Logan's FAA office have a long-term morale problem that is reflected in the agency's surveys. But aviation officials familiar with the office say it does not have a record for aggressive enforcement.

''When morale is high, agents will do better inspections and when it is low, they just want to walk the line,'' said Brian Sullivan, a former FAA security official. ''The agents I have talked to at Boston say they do not feel free to do their jobs as they should. The bottom line is we know there are morale concerns there, and that inhibits agents from doing their jobs well.''

On one occasion at Logan, a United Air Lines employee testing a United checkpoint was able to get a toy grenade placed in a cup filled with coffee through the security gate: He handed the cup to the security guard and passed through the metal detector, according to an airport official familiar with the incident. The official declined to be named.

Buckingham, the Massport executive director, said the number of undetected weapons is, by itself, reason enough for the federal government to assume responsibility for the checkpoints.

''This is why we believe this needs to be turned over to a federal security force,'' she said. ''... Even with the additional measures put in place since Sept. 11, through testing or just ignorance, it is clear dangerous items are still getting through, not just at Logan, but at airports around the country.''

On Sunday, the Globe reported that some passengers at Logan were still able to pass through checkpoints with items, including scissors and a corkscrew, that security screeners are now supposed to confiscate. But with some exceptions, Buckingham insisted, Massport's own security is actually better in some respects than at other airports. For one thing, she pointed to a program that pays State Police assigned to Logan $1 million in annual overtime to do such things as check identity badges, monitor the airport's perimeter, look for unattended baggage, and ensure that only authorized vehicles have access to secure areas.

But other officials familiar with Massport's security say it is flawed: The State Police office has no closed-circuit television capacity to monitor checkpoints, boarding gates, ramp areas, or the airport's perimeter entrances. If an alarm goes off at a secure doorway, officers cannot tell where it is.

And, as the Globe reported yesterday, vehicle access to restricted areas at Logan is overseen by uniformed, but unarmed and untrained, members of the Teamsters Union.

Partly because of the crackdown after the stowaway incident, citations for security violations by Massport itself ballooned to 42 in 1999 and 2000, according to FAA records, more than any other airport authority in the nation. In contrast, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates New York's three major airports - Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark - received a total of 15 during the same period.

Of the 42 violations at Logan, 26 were because an FAA security agent was able to get onto the airfield, often by going through an alarmed door, either by slipping past someone using the door, or simply pushing the door open and triggering the alarm.

Massport has also been cited by the FAA for misplacing keys to secure areas. ''It is a huge problem. They can't account for all the keys that lock jetway doors and things like that,'' said an official familiar with Logan's operations who declined to be identified.

Last year, Massport was forced to rekey all the locks on the airport perimeter and institute a lock-and-key audit program. Because the airport took those corrective actions, it was not fined.

Jane F. Garvey, administrator of the FAA, who once served as Logan's aviation director, said in an interview that Logan's problems are familiar to large airports around the country.

''I think that at all of the major airports, security is a real challenge,'' Garvey said. ''I think at airports where they are able to restrict access points, it clearly makes the job less challenging.''

Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff and correspondent Bill Dedman contributed to this article. Matthew Brelis can be reached by e-mail at Matt Carroll can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/26/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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