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Friday, 5 July, 2002, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Attack shows limits to airport security
Stranded passengers at Los Angeles International airport
LA airport was found to be vulnerable to infiltration
In the wake of the 11 September attacks, US authorities responded to the fears of passengers by beefing up security in and around the nation's airports.

Departure board showing delays at Los Angeles International airport
Most security measures did not account for attacks within actual airports
But Thursday's fatal shooting by a gunman at Los Angeles International airport has shown the limitations of these measures.

Despite more thorough inspection of baggage and increased security personnel presence, it seems that the vast open spaces and multiple exits and entrances of an airport hub provide ample opportunities for incidents to occur.

The increased security measures had concentrated on those attempting to board a plane - not accounting for the possibility that someone may mount an attack on passengers before they even reach the aircraft.

And the size and scale of airports such as Los Angeles International means that successfully monitoring all areas is virtually impossible, should someone be determined enough to mount an attack.

Vulnerable

Los Angeles International airport was recently found to be the most vulnerable to infiltration in the US when it comes to trying to smuggle in weapons.

Knives, guns and explosives carried by federal undercover inspectors were missed by Los Angeles International airport screeners at checkpoints an astonishing 41% of the time in an airport security test.

The test - which checked security at America's 32 biggest airports - was carried out in June by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) which assumed responsibility for airport security in February.

Previously, airport security had been the responsibility of the airlines themselves, who in turn employed private security firms in a system that had caused alarm even before 11 September.

Cost cutting

The airlines' desire to cut costs meant that airport security in the US was in the hands of poorly trained and unmotivated screeners being paid minimum wage.

El AL aircraft at LA International Airport
Israeli airline El Al has the strictest airline security of all

Even now, the airlines are reluctant to put up ticket prices to meet rising security costs because of the post-11 September crisis in the commercial aviation industry.

Among the airports scoring best in last month's the TSA test were Miami, Newark, New Jersey, Fort Lauderdale and Honolulu, which all had weapon detection rates of at least 90%.

But overall in the 32 airports, inspectors found that knives were missed 70% of the time, guns 30% of the time and fake explosives 60% of the time by personnel at security checkpoints.

No expense spared

By contrast to the lackadaisical approach in the US, Israel's national carrier El Al - the other player in Thursday's shooting drama at Los Angeles - spares no expense to create probably the most stringent airline security regime in the world.

Wherever El Al flies, it has its own armed guards from check-in to final destination.

At Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, passengers - in particular non-Israelis - are subjected to lengthy interrogations by highly-trained screeners while plain-clothes security officials watch for suspicious behaviour.

Outside Israel, travellers experience extremely thorough searches of their luggage, including not just repeated X-rays but also swabs to test for explosives and lengthy questioning

The measures may be effective, but BBC Middle East correspondent Barbara Plett says they are also discriminatory and sometimes unpleasant, with Palestinians and their friends subjected to much stricter procedures, including body searches.

Nonetheless it is arguable that, had El Al not had a strict tradition of posting guards at ticket counters - following fatal attacks on check-in counters in Rome and Vienna in 1985 by Palestinian militants - then the number of fatalities at Los Angeles airport on Thursday could have been much greater.

However the fact that such an incident happened at all is bound to cause much soul-searching by the US authorities.

See also:

04 Jul 02 | Americas
04 Jul 02 | Americas
02 Jul 02 | Americas
05 Oct 01 | Europe
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