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FAA finds holes in security at TIA
By JEAN HELLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2000
TAMPA -- Federal Aviation Administration inspectors, looking for security lapses that might allow terrorists access to critical airport operations, found seven in one four-week period at Tampa International Airport earlier this year.
Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, confirmed Tuesday that he had received notification of the infractions from the FAA and was taking steps quickly to recitify the problems.
"Quite frankly, I welcome these tests," Miller said. "We want to go overboard when it comes to security matters."
The seven incidents Miller described took place between Jan. 21 and Feb. 18 when inspectors descended on the airport, their operation veiled in secrecy. They entered secure areas and then took their badges off, wandering around unchallenged. They piggybacked behind airline employees who used security badges to enter a baggage-handling area by ducking in behind the employees before the security doors closed.
In one instance, they found an open window at a guard shack and were able to crawl through and gain access to a secure area. In another, they opened an emergency exit door and timed the official response to the alarm, which they deemed too slow.
The FAA declined to discuss its operation other than to confirm it took place.
"Conducting surveillance at airports is part of the FAA's mission," said Kathleen Bergen, southern regional spokeswoman for the agency. "We test every aspect of security at the airports. It would be inappropriate to discuss our findings while they are still under investigation."
Bergen would not say how many other airports underwent the same security testing or how TIA fared by comparison.
"It was very intense testing, day and night," Miller said.
In the piggybacking case, one Delta and three US Airways employees swiped their badges across the security scanner and entered the baggage-handling area, then went on their way, failing to wait until the doors closed again, as they are supposed to, Miller said. An FAA inspector slipped in behind them.
"Even though they were airline employees, it was our breach," Miller said. "Our doors, our responsibility."
In response, the airport has posted the doors, reminding those with access that they cannot enter in groups. Individuals must use their badges to get in one at a time. Other signs remind people to stand by the doors and watch them until they close.
"There is a temptation to get on with business, so we have fixed the doors to close faster," Miller said.
Because the FAA operation was a comprehensive security sweep, it is likely that baggage screeners also underwent testing, with inspectors trying to carry weapons or devices resembling weapons past X-ray machines, metal and explosives detectors. The FAA will not confirm this, and Miller said he does not know.
"Since the baggage screening is the responsibility of the airlines, the FAA would deal directly with the airlines on infractions," he said. "We wouldn't be told."
Baggage screeners have been the focus of a great deal of critical attention lately. Two highly visible breaches of their security at TIA late in 1998 involved one man who got past a security checkpoint carrying a bag that tested positive for an explosive substance and another who walked off with a bag that a screener noticed too late appeared to contain a handgun.
A St. Petersburg Times Freedom of Information request last year disclosed that FAA inspectors carrying weapons successfully breached baggage-screening security at TIA 21 times in 1997 and 1998.
Miller said he was notified by the FAA by letter of the security breaches uncovered in January and February.
"We have 15 days to respond with notice of corrective measures we are taking," he said. "We met immediately with our staff and with airline station managers to discuss the problems and the solutions. We have the airport police monitoring secure areas more closely to help make sure employees and contractors do what they're supposed to do."
The FAA will evaluate the airport's response and determine whether it is acceptable.
"Potentially, we face fines of up to $10,000 per incident, though I don't think the FAA ever levies fines that heavy," Miller said. "To my knowledge, the airport was only fined for a security breach once. It was during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 when all cars going into the parking garages had to be searched. There was one breach, and I think the fine was $1,000.
"I don't know if this latest security check was as rigorous as that, but it was pretty intense. But that's fine. That's a good thing. If there are holes, we need to know and close them."
Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.
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