The July 4 killing of two people and wounding of several others by an armed assailant at LAX International Airport highlights what many experts say is an Achilles heel of US airport security: public areas around check-in lines.
While the screening methods used to check passengers as they fan out to their planes pose problems of their own, virtually no airports in the US conduct searches of people before they enter terminals. Consequently, the LAX shooting is focusing renewed attention on whether people should be screened at remote locations or outside an airport's front door to avoid incidents at check-in counters or other areas.
Perhaps the most ambitious proposal to conduct off-site screening comes from Los Angeles itself. Ironically, Mayor James Hahn unveiled a $10 billion redesign of Los Angeles International Airport on the day before the shooting. The centerpiece of the plan: a huge facility where passengers would be checked before entering the main airport grounds.
Yet the Hahn initiative, designed in part to be a prototype for US airport security in the new millennium, raises questions about whether it just shifts the problem to another location.
Even before Thursday's shooting by an Egyptian immigrant, who apparently acted alone and who was killed himself by a security agent for El Al Israel Airlines, airport safety was a growing concern. A new survey by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) showed that America's passenger-screening continues to be a net with holes: It found that fake guns, bombs, and other weapons got past security screeners 25 percent of the time at 32 major airports and 90 percent of the time in Miami, Newark, Fort Lauderdale, and Honolulu. The shooter here, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, opened fire in a terminal area where travelers had yet to pass through metal detectors or checkpoints.
"The Los Angeles shooting incident, in tandem with the new survey, have certainly brought to national attention the need both for more scrutiny at the nation's airports and perhaps new strategies," says Gregg Warren of the TSA, the agency formed in the wake of 9/11 to revamp federal security at US airports.
The agency is currently ramping up to meet two separate deadlines this year. By Nov. 19, the agency is mandated to have passenger safety screeners in place at 429 airports. By Dec. 31, airports must have equipment that detects explosives.
How and where those screeners will be situated is the subject of heated debate from the federal to local level. The Bush administration has proposed spending $6.8 billion this fiscal year to improve security at airports.
"The specifics of how this shooter got where he got with a concealed weapon before opening fire will be grist for the discussions of exactly how we are to place our screeners and detectors of all kinds," says Mr. Warren.
Mr. Hahn's plan is receiving unusual attention not only because of its coincidental release the day before the shooting, but also because of LAX's size the world's third largest airport. Hahn, too, heads a US Conference of Mayors committee on airport safety, which is trying to develop ideas and guidelines for airports in every state.
The initiative includes plans to development a facility on 196 acres near the airport where all arriving passengers would check in and move through security checkpoints before heading to separate terminals. Passengers would be shuttled from the check-in site to a redesigned LAX central terminal on an automated "people mover." The ride would take about five minutes.
Other cities are looking at broadening security checkpoints to areas outside terminals as well, in what would amount to a major shift in strategy. At O'Hare International in Chicago, authorities are believed to be considering a checkpoint at the outer boundary of the airport as part of a modernization plan. One other idea gaining momentum: surveillance cameras that can monitor vehicles as they approach airports.
Yet authorities here believe the LAX initiative, because of its scale, could serve as a model for similar redesigns elsewhere. To carry out such a setup, major structures, including parking garages inside the U-shaped roadway at the center of the current terminal complex, would have to be removed to make room for the new security equipment.
"The idea of funneling all security through one area separate from where the airline terminals are is to make for a more secure and calm environment throughout the airport," says Nancy Castle of Los Angeles World Airports, which runs LAX.
The Hahn plan was developed after 9/11 to deal with the threat of terrorism and to address LAX's infamous traffic problems. Hahn wants to begin the project in 2003 or 2004. It is expected to take 10 years to build. "My number one goal was to make a safer airport," said Hahn, at a press conference.
Yet the proposal does have its critics. Some local opposition is expected because the expansion could impact the already congested community of El Segundo near the airport.
The main concern about remote screening, though, is that it simply relocates the problem. Critics say an assailant intent on hurting crowds will simple go to where they congregate.
But others believe extending the safety buffer zone would make terror attacks harder to carry out and allow authorities to contain them if they do occur. What's been "learned from the recent shooting here, as well as new information showing us how far airports have and haven't come since 9/11, are both opportunities to improve the old way of doing things," says Denny Zane, a consultant to the city of El Segundo about the expansion of LAX.