At Logan airport, a year of security gains
'Pocket cops' and baggage-screeners mark swift change, but gaps linger nationwide.
A year ago, Boston's Logan Airport stood as a symbol of infamy of how America's airport-security regimes failed to prevent the terrorist attacks. Ten of the 19 hijackers boarded planes here that September morning.Skip to next paragraph
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But in one short year, Logan's security has arguably gone from worst ... to first.
Over the past 12 months, Logan has led a national surge of security efforts. It has rushed to test everything from facial-recognition systems that pick out terrorists' faces in crowds to "pocket cop" devices that let roving state troopers do instant background checks on anyone. Logan is one of a tiny handful of major US airports expected to meet a Dec. 31 federal deadline for fully scanning all checked bags.
Yet even Logan's stand-out security is hardly foolproof. New York reporters recently sneaked box-cutters and other weapons through security here and in 10 other airports. And just four of Logan's 14 security checkpoints are staffed by better-trained federal workers. Indeed, Logan's struggles symbolize that, in the era of global terror, even America's best airport security may not be good enough.
Overall, "We're a good deal safer in aviation than we were a year ago," says Aaron Gellman, a transportation expert at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. That's because America has essentially settled on a three-pronged approach to airline security.
First: Control passengers' behavior by installing super-secure cockpit doors and putting thousands of armed air marshals on planes.
Second: Do better checks of carry-on bags by hiring federal workers.
Third: Scan all checked baggage about 1 billion bags a year nationwide usually with van-sized explosives-detection machines.
On the second point, the surge in staffing needs has left many airports strapped, and Logan, too, is struggling to hire the 1,100 federal workers it needs. At salaries of $25,000 to $35,000 it's a tough sell in an expensive city. "It's my biggest problem," says George Naccara, Logan's federal security director.
Still, Logan and most other airports are likely to meet a Nov. 19 deadline for having federal workers in place. But it's not yet clear whether these highly trained workers are more effective than their predecessors at ferreting out weapons or contraband.
On the third point, the massive baggage-scanning machines are problematic, too. These $1 million behemoths areso heavy that floors under them typically must be reinforced. They're so big that some airports are expanding into parking garages and onto tarmacs. And they're so slow that Logan alone will need 40.
These complications have many airport officials begging for an extension of the Dec. 31 deadline to screen all checked bags. The US House of Representatives has approved an extension, which the Senate is still considering.
It's also not clear whether the machines are worth the effort. They reportedly have "false positive" rates of 20-30 percent, meaning later checks must be done by different machines or by hand.
But despite the complications, Logan claims it will make the deadline. Out on the tarmac, it's building eight sites each about the size of a baseball diamond for the machines, along with five new power substations to feed them.