At Logan airport, a year of security gains

'Pocket cops' and baggage-screeners mark swift change, but gaps linger nationwide.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Progress – and limitations

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.

Beyond mechanics, stopping terror

The big reason Logan may meet the deadline – and one key to its overall success – is its backing from the area transit authority. Massport is putting $146 million, for instance, into the screening- machine project. It's a symbol of the region's strong political will to atone for Logan's role in the Sept. 11 attacks – and remove any stain on Boston's image.

But many observers say America's three-pronged approach isn't enough.

Logan, for instance, is forging ahead in a controversial fourth-prong area: trying to prevent ill-intentioned people from boarding planes. This involves identifying malefactors in advance – one of security work's toughest elements. "If we base our whole security concept on stopping certain items from getting onto planes" – such as the box cutters used on Sept. 11 – "we're doomed to fail," says Rafi Ron, an Israeli security consultant working at Logan.

To this end, Logan was one of a few airports to test facial-recognition systems. Experts are still debating how successful those tests were.

Now it's one of the first airports to train police officers in "behavior profiling" – recognizing telltale signs of nervousness. Troopers approach anxious-seeming people and ask simple questions, watching for inconsistencies.

Mr. Ron insists it's not about racial profiling, but skeptics worry even a well-intentioned system may devolve into targetting Middle Eastern men. Also, when cameras caught suspected Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta going through security in Portland, Maine, "He was one cool, collected cucumber," says Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general at the federal Transportation Department.

High-tech 'pocket cops'

To help troopers go beyond facial tics and sweaty brows, Logan is the first airport to equip its staff with "pocket cops."

When Sgt. Mike Duffy, an affable state trooper built like a phone booth, recently got a call from a reservations agent that a young man had paid cash for a one-way ticket to London, he marched over to the Virgin Atlantic counter and pulled out his "pocket cop." The device looks like a beefed-up Palm Pilot and gives him instant wireless access to several national law-enforcement databases – even traffic-ticket records and arrest-warrant information.

Sergeant Duffy quietly fired questions at the passenger – asking his name, destination, and hometown – while checking the databases. He determined the young man wasn't a risk, and let him go.

All in all, it's tough to judge whether these and other efforts are really working – other than to say there have been no successfulairline attacks since Sept. 11. That's because airport security is "a little like wrestling with ... jello" – hard to get a firm grip on – says Kenneth Button, an aviation expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

But Mr. Button insists airports have gotten smarter about security. Gone are ticket agents' once-mandatory security questions, which were deemed ineffective. Gone is the ban on taking coffee cups through security. Knee-jerk evacuations of entire airports appear to be waning, too.

That frees airports to focus on other key concerns – unchecked cargo containers in the bellies of planes, unsecured airport perimeters, private planes that are rarely scrutinized, and more.

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