Sunday, September 16, 2001, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Permission to reprint or copy this article or photo, other than personal use, must be obtained from The Seattle Times. Call 206-464-3113 or e-mail resale@seattletimes.com with your request.


Security checks reveal serious lapses at Sea-Tac

By David Heath, Susan Kelleher, James Neff and Justin Mayo
Seattle Times staff reporters

On June 14, 2000, a man with a hand grenade in a carry-on bag passed undetected through a security checkpoint at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport's South Terminal.

Four days later, he or one of his associates got a dynamite bomb in a bag past the X-ray screeners on Concourse C.

About a month later, they managed to get another hand grenade into the secure area of Concourse C, only steps away from being carried onto a departing jet.

Fortunately, these infiltrators were not terrorists. They were employees of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who routinely test the quality of security screeners at the Seattle area's busy international airport.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks that used commercial airliners, the nation is focused anew on airport security. Locally, then, air travelers and their families are asking: How safe is Sea-Tac?

The airport, the nation's 13th-busiest, has avoided catastrophe. But that may be because no one serious about wreaking havoc has tested it.

A review of 20 years of local FAA security violations and two years of Port of Seattle police records, as well as interviews with airport workers and aviation experts, reveals:

In FAA tests over a two-year period, Sea-Tac security screeners failed to detect test bombs and firearms 53 times. Though screeners did detect about 95 percent of the guns, they did poorly on nonmetal objects fashioned into fake bombs and explosive devices.

In 1995, Sea-Tac screeners found test bombs only 12 percent of the time, the second-worst performance of 20 major U.S. airports. Only Los Angeles International Airport performed worse.

By contrast, at the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where all carry-on bags are hand-checked, screeners found 100 percent of the test weapons.

Passengers at Sea-Tac have the second-highest rate of FAA firearm violations in the nation, second only to Los Angeles.

According to FAA records, nearly every week a Sea-Tac passenger is cited for a significant gun violation. In comparison, at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, slightly busier than Sea-Tac, the FAA cites only three passengers a year for gun violations.

The actual rate of gun incidents at Sea-Tac is low: 3.2 firearms per 1 million passengers in 1999. But as last week's events show, even one weapon getting through can have a tragic result.

The situation at Sea-Tac might actually be even worse. Port of Seattle records conflict with FAA records, with the Port showing gun violations, mostly minor, occurring more than every other day at the airport everything from a passenger failing to inform an airline that a weapon has been stored in a checked suitcase to trying to walk through the metal detector with a concealed handgun strapped to an ankle holster.

Privately employed airport screeners at Sea-Tac, whom the industry relies upon for much of its safety, are often poorly trained, make $8 an hour without benefits, and have a 140 percent turnover rate. That situation is not unique to Sea-Tac; it's the norm at U.S. airports.

"Airport security in the United States," said Rick Charles, a pilot, an aviation-safety consultant and professor at Georgia State University, "is really not that good."

Federal aviation laws broken

Though restrictions against taking weapons on planes have been in place for decades, passengers break federal regulations regularly at Sea-Tac. A review of incident reports for 2000 shows that travelers using the airport broke federal aviation laws 198 times.

Half of the violations involved weapons checked in bags that were not declared, normally not a travel hazard. Security screeners at concourse checkpoints ran across handguns, shotguns, brass knuckles, knives even a sword with a special concealed blade 97 times.

To transport a gun on a commercial U.S. flight, a passenger must pack the gun unloaded in a hard-shelled suitcase or special case and obtain a permit from the airline. No one is allowed to bring a weapon on board a plane with the exception of law enforcement, even with a valid concealed-weapon permit.

At Sea-Tac, in the 11 days of the month before Tuesday's quadruple hijackings, guns that were improperly stowed in checked luggage were detected nine times. In the same period, Sea-Tac checkpoint screeners came across illegal weapons four times.

On Sept. 11 at 8:30 a.m., for instance, three men with hunting weapons tried to enter a restaurant inside the checkpoint, carrying a hunting bow and a Remington rifle. Airport police said it was an innocent mistake made by hunters, who were escorted out of the secure area, and a report was made.

Most violations are minor

Bob Parker, a spokesman for the Port of Seattle, which oversees airport operations, said most weapons violations at the airport are minor, unintentional and pose no hazard to travelers.

Port police arrest the weapon carrier only when there is an apparent violation of state law, such as a man who last year tried to carry a concealed handgun in an ankle holster through security.

The FAA has repeatedly fined airlines at Sea-Tac for security violations, but they pass them on to the security company whose employee made the mistake.

In 2000, the FAA fined airlines at Sea-Tac $153,000 for 57 incidents. Critics say the fines are too small to change company behavior.

Perhaps one of the most embarrassing security lapses at Sea-Tac took place in March 2000, when testers put a fake bomb in a green backpack and tried to slip it past a checkpoint. The screeners detected the bomb.

But while the employees discussed the effort, an elderly woman walked off with the backpack, thinking it was her grandson's.

Later, a flight attendant on an Alaska Airlines flight to California found the bomb when she was asked to reach the stowed pack for the boy's coloring book and crayons. She discovered what she thought was a bomb and the plane made an emergency landing.

Two passengers were hurt in the panic while jumping onto inflatable slides.

Three security companies

At Sea-Tac, three different companies handle security at various terminals and concourses.

Huntleigh USA, one of the nation's largest airport-security firms, covers the checkpoints on Concourse A, Concourse C and the North Terminal, and is paid mostly by Northwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Southwest and Delta hire Olympic Security Services, a local company with contracts at 30 small airports in the West, to operate checkpoints on Concourse B.

Until June, Argenbright Security, a national competitor of Huntleigh, ran security at one of the concourses. Last year, Argenbright was fined $1.5 million for falsifying records about checking the backgrounds and training 1,300 employees at Philadelphia International Airport. Argenbright still provides background checks for some Sea-Tac employees.

Air-travel safety watchdogs, including Congress's General Accounting Office (GAO), have attacked the practice of allowing the airline industry to be responsible for its baggage and passenger safety. In the highly competitive industry with tight profit margins, airlines are under pressure to hold down costs by selecting a less expensive security contractor.

Huntleigh, which employs about 220 screeners at Seattle's airport, pays starting workers $8.05 an hour with no health benefits or paid sick leave. In contrast, workers at Dick's Drive-In, the local hamburger chain, earn $8.25 an hour to start, and get medical and dental benefits if they work more than 24 hours a week.

With low wages and no benefits, most of the workers who help to secure Sea-Tac's 13.5 million passengers quit their jobs in less than a year. The annual turnover rate at Sea-Tac is 140 percent, higher than the national average, according to a 1999 study by the GAO.

Teuila Tuitele, 38, has worked as a Huntleigh screener at Sea-Tac for 11 months. She trains new workers.

"They hire people, and then they quit," she said. "It's not uncommon for someone to quit after a day."

Tuitele said the training she received inadequately prepared her for the job. She had some classroom training during her first week and passed a multiple-choice test asking how she should handle irate passengers or what to do if she detected a weapon on the X-ray machine. She was shown and tested on how to identify suspicious bomb-like shapes.

She said screeners needed only an 85 percent detection rate to get assigned a job.

Huntleigh USA did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The FAA requires eyesight testing, but Tuitele said the company only asked her if she had good vision. Nor do some companies test screeners for color blindness, even though screeners work at color monitors where software assigns specific colors to suspicious items, according to research conducted in 1997 by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

"I got certified, and I said I wasn't comfortable with going to the X-ray machine," Tuitele said. She asked that a supervisor or experienced colleague shadow her for three more days to build her confidence.

"They said we're only supposed to get 40 hours," she said. "After that, you're supposed to be on your own."

To counter attention lapses and eye fatigue, screeners are supposed to be rotated every 30 minutes to different stations, including X-ray machines, metal detectors and explosives detectors.

Tuitele said the precaution is routinely ignored. "Sometimes we get so busy, they forget to rotate us."

It is not uncommon for a screener to sit at the X-ray machine for two or even three hours without a break. "Sitting there more than 30 minutes you fall asleep," Tuitele said. "It's like watching the TV."

Another problem is the inadequate screening of potential employees. Security firms are not required to run full background checks or administer polygraph tests before hiring.

"We have only so much money to do the job," said Mark Vinson, president of Olympic Security.

Congress tried to tackle the issue of poorly trained screeners last year when it passed legislation requiring more training and better certification of the nation's airport-security firms.

If screeners fail FAA tests, they can be suspended or dismissed, and security firms can possibly lose their certification.

The law also requires better background checks and bars hiring screeners who have been convicted of certain felonies.

If enacted, the law is "going to almost mandate that screening companies hire a different caliber of person and pay a different wage," said Gerald Dillingham, the GAO's expert on aviation security.

The FAA was supposed to put the regulations in place by April, but the agency still hasn't completed that work.

More sweeping changes may supercede these fixes, however.

Federal security officers?

In the wake of last week's terrorist attacks, a bipartisan group in Congress wants to turn over screening to federal security officers who won't have to answer to the airline industry.

The industry supports the plan so long as the government pays for it.

Predictably, perhaps, Vinson of Olympic Security said the plan won't work.

"It shouldn't be done," he said. "When the government takes over, the quality of the product goes down and the cost goes up."

Professor Charles of Georgia State said this system has worked well in other countries.

Without waiting for federal action, some cities have tried to improve airport security by requiring contractors at airports to pay what is known as "a living wage."

The city and county of San Francisco, which operates San Francisco International Airport, attacked the issue last year by setting minimum wages for employees working in baggage check, ticketing and passenger assistance at $10 an hour with benefits, or $11.25 an hour without.

The San Francisco program also goes beyond FAA rules and requires security companies to provide better background checking of potential hires, improved training, and better testing of screening equipment.

Likewise, Los Angeles required that screeners' pay go from $12,000 a year to more than $18,000.

"Increasing pay is one of the single most effective ways to reduce turnover," Miguel Contreras, a former L.A. airport commissioner and now a labor leader, told the FAA last year.

'Not a role we should play'

There is no talk of similar measures at Sea-Tac. Clare Nordquist, chairman and president of the Port of Seattle commission, said he sees no reason for the Port to interfere with security arrangements at the airport, as other airports have done.

"This is not a role we should play," Nordquist said. "If we saw an obvious problem, which we do not see, we would get involved."

Experts acknowledge that even the best security, provided by federal law enforcement, may not thwart relentless, sophisticated attackers who are willing to give their lives for a cause.

Meanwhile, Tuitele, the Huntleigh screener at Sea-Tac, worries that the recent events will make her fellow screeners the target of some of the public's rage about how four jets were easily hijacked.

"To me, it's a serious job," she said. "It's a dangerous job and a very important job.

"We do our best for $8.05 an hour."