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Airlines foiled police Logan probe

By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 10/17/2001

Just two months before 10 hijackers commandeered two jetliners after takeoff from Logan International Airport, Massport was poised to use undercover State Police to probe for security weaknesses at Logan. But the airlines vehemently objected and the proposal was set aside, according to interviews and documents reviewed by the Globe.

Coincidentally, the mid-July rebuff to Massport followed a Federal Aviation Administration decision to curtail levying fines against airlines for security violations, according to other documents. A top FAA official later acknowledged that this decision had the effect of relaxing FAA scrutiny of airline security at Logan.

Federal data reviewed by the Globe provide new evidence that heightened security was warranted. From 1991 through 2000, according to an FAA database, Logan - the country's 18th-busiest airport - had the sixth-highest amount of fines for security breaches. Virtually all $700,000 in fines was levied against the airlines, including some $200,000 against Delta Air Lines.

Yet, despite the long record of security breaches at checkpoints maintained by airlines at Logan, a committee of airline executives strenuously objected in July to Massport's proposal to use undercover state troopers to sneak weapons through checkpoints to test for security weaknesses.

In response, Massport shelved the plans until further discussions could be held, according to one aviation official involved. The issue remained unsettled until after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Massport ordered State Police to begin the very same security checks the airlines blocked two months earlier.

Last week, Carter Bibbey, the manager of the firm that provides security for American Airlines, said his company did not want its checkpoint screeners to be forced to detect test weapons that were different than the standard test items that FAA agents periodically use to see how vigilant the screeners are.

''We didn't want everyone testing us without knowing what to look for exactly,'' Bibbey, the Logan manager for Globe Aviation Services, said in an interview. ''We don't need people improvising test pieces to purposely make people fail.''

He said he didn't mind Massport tests, as long as it used FAA-approved objects that screeners are more accustomed to spotting.

Despite evidence that Logan's security lapses were more egregious than those at most other major airports, aviation specialists have said it is unlikely that more rigorous attention to existing rules would have thwarted the 10 hijackers who boarded two jets at Logan on Sept. 11. At the time, the knives and box-cutters they were carrying were permitted. Such items have since been barred.

Yet many specialists say the security lapses, and the fines, underscore the extent to which the aviation system may have been an irresistible target for terrorists.

What the fines show ''is that the current system doesn't work,'' said Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a nonprofit watchdog group. ''The airlines with the largest resources over a 10-year period clearly could have made security a higher priority and lowered the rate at which they were fined and violated security regulations.''

In July, according to aviation officials, Joseph Lawless, the Massport security chief who was recently reassigned, was set to implement new security measures that would have intruded on FAA and airline territory by having State Police test for security weaknesses - scrutiny that had long been the exclusive responsibility of the FAA.

Minutes of a July 11 Massport security meeting, obtained by the Globe, note that State Police were ready to begin their security monitoring the following week. Lawless, according to the memo, ''said the tests will consist of trying to sneak weapons past the checkpoint and also observing response time to alarms.''

The plan, in the works for several months, was to use four or five plainclothes police and staff members, according to an aviation official present at the meeting, who asked not to be named.

The tests were tentatively scheduled to begin during the week of July 16, after they'd been reviewed by the Logan Airlines Managers Council, which represents carriers at the airport.

However, airline managers objected ''loudly'' to any testing by Massport, said the official who attended the meeting. Airline officials were worried about who would have access to the results of the tests and whether they would be shared with the FAA, the official said.

Two months earlier, the FAA signaled its interest in easing sanctions it had long imposed for security lapses. The agency's top security official, Michael Canavan, advised FAA regional offices on May 30 not to fine airlines for security violations if it appeared they had corrected their shortcomings.

The directive, issued in the face of periodic conclusions by federal auditors that both airline security procedures and FAA enforcement were lax, said the airlines and the FAA should maintain ''a candid, respectful, and mutually responsive business relationship.''

Canavan, the FAA's associate administrator for security, wrote the agency's airport security managers about the ''new philosophy.''

There ''will be times when we find areas of noncompliance,'' Canavan wrote. ''When we do, I want to fully consider the actions the party has taken to fix the problem. I want to work with industry to develop action plans to permanently correct problems that have resulted in violations.

''I do not expect us to impose a civil penalty against a regulated party for certain unaggravated violations, if we believe the party has successfully implemented a permanent fix that will resolve the security problem.''

In August, retired FAA security agent Brian Sullivan, who had worked at Logan, e-mailed Canavan, warning him that his policy was being abused by FAA officials in Boston, who were citing the memo to justify closing legitimate security cases without fines and failing to open new cases.

In a return e-mail, Canavan wrote, ''From what I have been able to see and hear, you are right. This is being fixed.''

How - or whether - the problem was ''fixed'' could not be determined. Canavan, a retired Army lieutenant general, resigned two weeks ago for undisclosed reasons, after just 10 months at the FAA. He did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto refused to comment on the memo, but said: ''We're interested in compliance. We're not in the business of levying fines.''

While some $700,000 in fines was levied against the airlines at Logan in the last 10 years, FAA officials said they could not determine how much of that was actually paid. The agency, after airline lobbying, often settles for pennies on the dollar.

Of the total, $205,000 was for security breaches by Delta Air Lines. US Airways was assessed $134,000, American $117,000, Continental $110,000, and United Air Lines $56,000.

Airline officials said they would not discuss the fines, citing security considerations. Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said it would take the FAA a considerable amount of time to determine how much of the fines levied was paid.

The FAA database on the fines, according to aviation officials, is useful for drawing broad conclusions about a major airport's security readiness. But it is not known whether the airlines at Logan received equal scrutiny from the FAA inspectors over the decade. Brown declined to discuss how often the airlines were checked, or to comment on any other aspect of the database.

The vast majority of the fines involved problems at security checkpoints and screening passengers and luggage. Problems included faulty X-ray machines, weapons smuggled past screening personnel, keys to secure areas unaccounted for, and unauthorized people on the tarmac.

Last month, the Globe reported that FAA agents were more successful at slipping guns and dummy bombs through security gates at Logan than at any other US airport between 1991 and 2000, according to the same FAA database.

Matt Carroll can be reached by e-mail at mcarroll@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 10/17/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.