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Airport (In)Security

Frank and others would also tighten ID requirements for passengers. "I don't care how many million-dollar machines you walk through," says Luckey. "There's no guarantee that's you in the first place."

Fidel Gonzalez, security chairman of the Association of Flight Attendants, believes we should stop building airports that look like malls: "You wouldn't have to worry about all those vendors." He'd also like to standardize airport workers' ID's so that a green badge would mean the same thing in Chicago, say, as it does in Boston.

On occasion, Gonzalez investigates complaints from flight attendants about slow responses to security calls. In two separate incidents at major airports, he says, airport police took nearly an hour to respond to flight attendants reporting unattended carry-on bags. At one, police said they were busy looking for a missing child. At the other, the officers challenged the flight attendant's claim that the bag was unattended. Neither explanation pleased Gonzalez. "Such situations have probably made these flight attendants indifferent," he says. "They're probably thinking, 'Next time, I'm not going to go through this crap.'"

Of course, no system will ever be airtight. "Let's say we could fingerprint everyone who flew," says Bernard Wilson, chief of airport police at Los Angeles International Airport. "What's that going to tell us?The passenger either has a criminal record or doesn't. Period." If security came to that, terrorists would find someone without a criminal record, notes Wilson. And the system couldn't trace individuals arrested outside the country.

That the flying public learned so much about last year's disturbing OIG findings surprised a few people, including Alexis Stefani, assistant inspector general for auditing at the DOT. She says she was expecting the report to be more heavily censored. (In July, the FAA redacted, or blacked out, so much of an OIG report on airport screeners, the so-called "human element," that the office could not release it.)

Indeed, there's a lot about airport security that plane passengers will never know. For example, the FAA publishes violations only when fines exceed $50,000. In the case of security infractions, the FAA waits at least one year after the incidents, for security reasons. So travelers don't learn about specific major security lapses until well after the fact, and they never learn about lesser violations. Even though each major U.S. carrier gets slapped with 100 or more violations every year, those fines remain confidential.

In the past two calendar years, the FAA has made only three such announcements. Last July, the agency reported that it was fining American Airlines $250,500 for 51 security violations at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. In December 1998, the FAA revealed that it was fining American $190,000 and Delta $80,000 for security violations, again at Dallas/Fort Worth. The latter infractions took place in 1996. That's major news (especially to folks flying in and out of Dallas). But some people don't want you to know much beyond that.


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