Airlines Fought Security Changes

By Walter V. Robinson, and Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 9/20/2001

WASHINGTON - Despite recurrent warnings from official watchdog agencies and presidential commissions that airport security lapses could have catastrophic consequences, government efforts to remedy the problems have been frustrated repeatedly by cost-conscious airlines.

A new commission has now been empaneled to look at airport security after last week's devastating attacks with hijacked jetliners on New York and Washington.

But specialists wonder whether reform might be imperiled by the same political factors that have undermined security over the last two decades: Airlines that have successfully resisted many critical, sometimes costly security improvements; ineffectual federal oversight; and politicians of both parties who, like their constituents, have been more concerned about flight delays than terrorism.

Major airlines often fail to deliver on-time performance. But in Washington, the Globe has found, their lobbying record is the envy of other regulated industries.

In 1990, when Congress sought to impose 10-year criminal background checks on all airport workers, the airlines hired former FBI and CIA director William H. Webster to lobby against the measure, which was later weakened substantially.

Five years ago this month, a presidential commission led by Vice President Al Gore backpedaled on a tough baggage-screening proposal, after a flood of airline contributions to the Democratic Party in the closing weeks of the 1996 presidential election.

Just yesterday, the FAA disclosed that later this month it will require new training and performance standards for the near minimum-wage workers who staff security checkpoints at airports as subcontractors to the airlines. The new standards were proposed by the White House in February 1997.

''We're going to spend over $100 billion before this is over,'' said Billie H. Vincent, a former FAA security chief. ''We're going to lose good military personnel, because of the stupidity of the [airline] industry.

''And now they're on the doorstep of the president with their hands out, saying, `Help us, help us,''' Vincent said. ''We wouldn't have been in this situation at all if they hadn't fought the things we were recommending in the first place.''

David Fuscus - a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the airlines - said the airlines have merely followed the rules set by the government.

In areas where security measures have not been acceptable, Fuscus said, ''it is up to the government to set the standards.'' But now, he added, it is time for the government to take over the responsibility.

Despite the accusatory fingers now being pointed at airport managers in Boston and elsewhere, the security system that was breached so easily last week was not of their making.

Instead, it is a leftover oddity of the 1970s, when a wave of hijackings prompted the government to order the airlines to keep weapons and bombs off airplanes.

Yet the airlines, who bear the responsibility and cost of most airport security procedures, have long used their political power to frustrate FAA regulators. Even when the FAA pushes back, the airlines often persuade key members of Congress to intervene on their behalf.

The result is a national airport security system so vulnerable that, until last week, the FAA had permitted passengers to carry knives up to four inches long, simply because so many people carry them.

But the 19 hijackers armed with plain boxcutters might well have slipped heavy weaponry aboard. Security systems at major airports are so porous that the government's own agents routinely sneak handguns and mock bombs through checkpoints staffed by lightly trained workers paid marginal wages with no benefits by companies who win contracts from airlines by submitting the lowest bid.

It is a system so hapless that expensive bomb-detecting machines are often of little value because the same pool of entry-level workers is inadequately trained to operate the sophisticated equipment. All too often, the same workers find better pay at airport fast-food concessions like Starbuck's, which offers stock options and other benefits.

Government, airline, and airport officials have said that even the best of security systems might not have stymied the plans of terrorists intent on using large passenger planes as suicide bombs.

But a growing number of experts say that security shortcomings at US airports have been so serious and so obvious for so long that terrorists must have concluded that the daring takeover of four jetliners would have a high chance of succeeding.

Just 15 months ago, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, added an eerie warning to a report citing serious airport security flaws.

''The trend in terrorism against US targets is toward large-scale incidents designed for maximum destruction, terror, and media impact,'' the GAO said.

Paul Hudson - executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a nonprofit watchdog group - said in an interview this week that he ''can't think of one thing that [the airlines] have proposed to enhance security, and I can think of many things they have done to inhibit it.''

Hudson added: ''When things occur that indicate a need for corrective action, [the proposals] are defused and delayed and watered down, to where the resulting measures have no effect.''

Little consumer patience

Yet it is not just airline intransigence and government complicity that have hamstrung efforts to improve airline security. Frustrated by an air travel system known for its chronic tardiness, air passengers had little patience with the security system that existed before Sept. 11.

At Logan and other airports, facility managers and airlines have pushed subcontractors to quicken the pace at security checkpoints. Last February, for example, Logan's managers, the Massachusetts Port Authority, urged airlines to speed the movement of passengers through the system, to ensure that the wait at checkpoints not exceed five minutes.

Similar haste has been urged at other airports.

''We were constantly under pressure to move people through security more quickly,'' recalled Dan Boeschle, who until February was the manager of the security company at Dulles Airport, outside Washington.

Passengers were often rude and abusive, he said in an interview. Some even threatened lawsuits if they missed their flights.

''We were under constant pressure from the airlines, too,'' Boeschle said. ''If there were lines at security, we started getting visits from [airline] customer service managers saying, `I want to talk to your boss.'''

That kind of intervention, he said, ''would make you feel like your job or contract was threatened.''

Sonia Ramirez, who is paid $9.24 per hour to screen passengers at a Los Angeles International Airport checkpoint overseen by Delta Air Lines, said there was often intense pressure to move passengers through security. Sometimes, she said, supervisors overseeing three passenger queues were forced to open a fourth X-ray machine and metal detector, with no additional staff.

At Logan, checkpoints were often so short-staffed that the on-site supervisor had no choice but to examine baggage, a violation of FAA rules, according to a former airline supervisor at the airport who asked that he not be identified.

Morale is so low that the average employee at Logan, for example, stays on the job less than six months.

The result was that airport security personnel, ill-trained to start with, often missed contraband items.

Brian Sullivan, who retired early this year as an FAA special agent, said that he and other agents frequently slipped handguns and dummy bombs through security at major airports. One team, Sullivan said, even managed to get a rifle through the system.

For years, government agents like Sullivan have documented continuing serious lapses, but to no avail.

As recently as June 2000, the GAO rated the peformance of airport security screeners as ''unsatisfactory'' in detecting contraband items like handguns. FAA reports, documented by the Globe in 1999, pinpointed Logan as one of many major airports with serious security flaws. During one two-year period in the late 1990s, Massport and the airlines paid $178,000 in fines for security violations.

Those long-standing concerns prompted the Gore Commission, even in its watered-down final report in February 1997, to urge a substantial increase in standards, training, pay, and advancement opportunities for airport security personnel.

But the airlines, which pay the security bill, have fought the change. Only now are the recommendations of the Gore Commission being seriously considered.

Small wonder, said Hudson, the consumer aviation advocate. ''There is a virtual interlock between the [airline] industry and the Transportation Department and the FAA,'' Hudson said. ''The aviation industry spends over $20 million a year to get their way in Washington, and they get their way. I've never seen a serious instance in which they haven't.''

Some of that money is spent to hire lobbyists with the capital's most impressive resumes, as US Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, discovered in 1990 when he championed legislation in the aftermath of the Pan Am 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Following through on recommendations from another presidential commission, Oberstar, then the chairman of a House aviation subcommittee, proposed a 10-year background investigation for all airport security workers. The airlines, he said, balked at the cost and wanted such a check triggered only when there was a yearlong gap in employment.

To press their case, the airline trade group hired Webster, the former FBI and CIA director.

Oberstar recalled in an interview this week that after hearing Webster's objections, ''I just leaned over and said, `If you were still director of the FBI, would you be making this argument to me?'''

''And he sort of stopped and just went back and said: `Look, that's not the issue. The issue is cost and time and complexity and paperwork, and the same benefit can be achieved by other means.''' Oberstar recalled. ''I said: `I do not accept it. I'm appalled by the argument, and I won't be party to it.''

Webster did not dispute that recollection in an interview yesterday. He said his opposition to the criminal background checks stemmed from two points: The FAA was trying to make them mandatory when Congress had not offered that directive, and ''only one employee at that time had ever been found to have breached his loyalty,'' Webster said.

Asked whether he felt that his lobbying had done anything to undercut airport security, Webster replied: ''I still feel it was sound. That was putting money in the wrong place. When you require them to spend money, it ought to be spent where it will do some good.''

In the end, Webster and the airlines prevailed. The proposal was delayed and then weakened. When Congress ultimately mandated the checks in 1996, existing employees were exempted. What's more, airport security managers say the background check has little value, because the vast majority of new airport screeners are recent immigrants whose backgrounds are difficult or impossible to check.

Boeschle, who ran the Dulles security operation, said that nine out of 10 security workers at that airport are foreign-born and that most of those have green cards. ''That would lessen the effectiveness of any fingerprint check,'' he said.

Presidential commission

By some accounts, the Gore Commission represents the clearest recent public example of the success that airlines have long had in defeating calls for more oversight.

Formed in the summer 1996, after the explosion that tore apart TWA Flight 800 off Long Island after it departed from Kennedy Airport in New York, the presidential commission eventually issued a report containing numerous recommendations for enhanced security and safety. But the airline industry has used its leverage at the FAA to delay or dilute many recommendations, including the enhanced training for airport screeners.

To be sure, some of the commission's work has borne fruit in improvements such as more bomb-sniffing canine units and the use of sophisticated imaging equipment to detect bombs in luggage, although the GAO has found that the expensive machinery is often operated by security workers with insufficient training.

At the outset, the commission issued an ambitious set of proposals, announcing on Sept. 5, 1996, that it favored measures that included baggage matching. Long used on international flights and on originating domestic flights, that provision would have required that no checked bag, even on a connecting flight, could be loaded unless the ticketholder boarded the flight.

To the airlines, with domestic hub-and-spoke systems that rely on quick connections of both bags and passengers, the proposal meant costly delays and enraged passengers.

According to Vincent, the former FAA security chief, the airlines began a vigorous lobbying campaign aimed at the White House. Two weeks later, Gore retreated from the proposal in a letter to Carol B. Hallett, president of the industry's trade group, the Air Transport Association.

''I want to make it very clear that it is not the intent of this administration or of the commission to create a hardship for the air transportation industry or to cause inconvenience to the traveling public,'' Gore wrote.

To reassure Hallett, Gore added that the FAA would develop ''a draft test concept ... in full partnership with representatives of the airline industry.''

The day after Gore's letter, Trans World Airlines donated $40,000 to the Democratic National Committee. By the time of the presidential election, other airlines had poured large donations into Democratic Party committees: $265,000 from American Airlines, $120,000 from Delta Air Lines, $115,000 from United Air Lines, $87,000 from Northwest Airlines, according to an analysis done for the Globe by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks donations.

In all, the airlines gave the Democratic Party $585,000 in the election's closing weeks. Over the preceding 10-week period, the airlines gave the Democrats less than half that sum.

Elaine Kamarck, the Gore aide who worked with the commission, denied that there was any connection between the donations and the commission's decisions. ''Everyone was giving us money,'' she said. ''When you're winning, everyone gives.''

Fuscus, who was then the Air Transport Association's vice president for communications, said the industry contributes because it is heavily regulated and wants to make sure that its voice is heard.

''But the industry was not buying anything, and the administration was not selling anything,'' he said.

Others disagree. Mary Schiavo, the outspoken former FAA inspector general, said she believes that the contributions helped to ensure that the airlines avoided expensive new requirements, such as the baggage match. Vincent, the former FAA chief, holds the same view.

Two of the commission's members - Kathleen Flynn and Victoria Cummock, both relatives of victims of the Pan Am 103 terrorist attack - also said that they believe political contributions influenced the outcome.

But Flynn also noted that ''the same thing happened under the Republicans.''

Cummock, alone among the commissioners, refused to endorse the final report. Instead, she filed a stinging dissent, charging that the report was tailored to the concerns of the airline industry.

The airlines may have found other pressure points within the commission, according to a January 1997 letter in which one member, Brian M. Jenkins, said he felt that his support for the baggage-matching requirements might hurt his business.

Jenkins - a counterterrorism specialist who was then deputy chairman of Kroll International, a security firm - wrote the commission's staff director to say that he had learned that airline executives considered him ''a hard-line foe of the aviation industry, because, according to their sources, I am the principal member of the commission who is driving the group to adopt unreasonable positions on baggage match and other security measures, and furthermore that this will weigh heavily against Kroll in any future business with the airline industry.''

According to the letter, which the Globe obtained this week, Jenkins described himself instead as ''determined but pragmatic'' and ''not wanting to disrupt the system.''

In an interview, Jenkins acknowledged that there was pressure on the commission from the airlines. But he said that the commission also had to deal with the disparate agendas of organizations representing large and small airlines; cargo carriers; unions representing pilots, flight attendants, and air traffic controllers; and even civil libertarians who successfully fought off what they considered intrusive proposals to use profiling to identify possible terrorists.

Jenkins, who was also involved with the 1990 commission, said that all Washington's major players share responsibility for the airport security system that was so badly compromised a week ago.

''I don't think the airline industry delivered the security it should have,'' he said. ''I don't think the government did enough or enforced the rules. And I don't think the public demanded the level of security we should have had.

''But had we done better, would it have prevented the tragedy on Sept. 11?'' Jenkins said. ''Not necessarily. I just don't know.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/20/2001.