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Los Angeles Airports Guard Against Terrorism, Keep Passengers Moving - 2003-03-15

The new U.S. Department of Homeland Security is guarding U.S. airports, which are potential targets for terrorists. One of the busiest U.S. airports is in Los Angeles where officials hope to smooth the flow of passengers while shielding the airport from potential terrorism.

Lydia Kennard is executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, which operates the city's international airport, often referred to by its airport code, LAX - and three smaller facilities. She says LAX is the busiest airport in the country, indeed in the world, when measured in terms of passengers who start or end their trips here.

Today, she insists, LAX is also among the world's safest airports. The change dates back to September 11, 2001, when she got an early morning call informing her of the terror attacks on New York and Washington. "It was a little after 6 AM here on the West Coast, and three of those four planes were destined for Los Angeles," she says. "And we didn't know what we were looking at in terms of the security threat."

Within hours, all U.S. airline traffic was grounded for the first time in history. Los Angeles airport officials had to find places for 178 jetliners and evacuate tens of thousands of stranded passengers and employees.

LAX reopened three days later, and within months, strict security measures would be implemented under new federal laws.

Larry Fetters, the deputy federal security director for the Los Angeles airport, says Congress gave airport operators two deadlines. First, it required new federally trained screeners to be on the job November 19 of last year to check all passengers. "That legislation also mandated that all checked baggage would be screened electronically using explosive detection systems and explosive trace detection systems no later than December 31, 2002," he says.

Mr. Fetters says both deadlines were met. He says the new measures have led to safer flights, but longer waits at the airport.

As departing passengers arrive, they are directed with their baggage to a screening device. The larger of the machines uses x-rays and magnetic resonance to detect explosives.

Screener Alricco Farmer views suitcases in layered images on a computer screen. "You have a couple of different slices," he explains. "That's one slice. That's another slice, they're just cutting the bag up. He got a couple of angles that you can look at the bag at."

If Mr. Farmer and his crew find anything suspicious, they will examine the suitcase by hand and rub it with a swab designed to pick up traces of explosives.

Airport officials say most passengers tolerate, indeed, demand this level of security. A quick survey suggests they are right. Mike Hutchings, a native of England, now lives in Los Angeles and is taking a long-overdue vacation. "This has changed a lot since I last came, but I don't have a problem with it," he says. "I think it's good if it helps."

Alfred Ebenebe agrees. He is heading home to Samoa. "It's inconveniencing, but maybe necessary. I guess it is important they do it," he says. His friend, David Hunter, is not so sure all the security is needed. "To me, personally, it's a bit too much," he says.

But Anika Rosenberger from Berlin says the added scrutiny is required in the interest of safety. British tourist Margaret Surades seconds that opinion. "I don't have any problem with the security. I think it's the only way in which we can be sure that nothing awful happens in the air," she says. "It's just a fact of life at the movement with the world the way it is."

After passengers check their baggage, they pass through another screening point, where security is also much tighter than in the past. Carry-on luggage is x-rayed and some travelers are pulled aside for additional inspections. They empty their pockets, remove their shoes and turn over their carry-on bags for a search.

Some inspections are random and others are based on profiles done at the time of ticket purchase. Unusual itineraries or one-way flights may trigger inspections.

All passengers pass through metal-detecting magnetometers to enter the airline gate area.

"It is important that your clothing be completely free of all items. Do not forget your cell phone or palm pilot. These items must also be placed in your carry on baggage prior to screening. We appreciate your cooperation."

Despite all the added security, airport officials admit there is one weak link in the system. Private passenger cars still travel the semi-circular road through the center of the airport. Under a $9 billion improvement plan, that road will be removed and parking structures near the terminals will be demolished. If local and federal officials approve the new airport plan, construction will start in 2004 and take four to six years to finish.

LAX has already been targeted by one terrorist group. In December, 1999, the so-called Millennium bomber, Ahmed Ressam, was arrested crossing the border from Canada with a car full of explosives. A member of an Algerian terrorist cell based in Montreal, he later admitted he was planning an attack on the Los Angeles airport.

Michael DiGirolamo, the official in charge of security of Los Angeles World Airports, says part of his job is anticipating the actions of would-be terrorists like Ressam. "They seem to be looking at economic targets right now. We're concerned about that. We are taking precautions," he says. "I think this is one of the more hardened targets in the United States. When you look at the number of security officers and people involved in public safety here, it's well over 4,000."

He says that is one of the highest ratios of security workers to passengers of any airport in the United States.

The official says the new security measures are working. The next challenge for airport operators is to make them less obtrusive, for example, by moving baggage screening devices out of airport lobbies, and refining the crude systems now used to profile passengers who may pose a threat. In future, say the officials, they hope to speed the flow of passengers while maintaining this heightened level of airport safety.