U.S.: Unscreened Ground Crews Add to Flying Jitters

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Headline: Unscreened Ground Crews Add to Flying Jitters

Source: Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times, 3 October 2001

URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-000078980oct03.column?coll=la%2Dheadlines%2Dcalifornia%2Dmanual

She flew eight straight days ending Sunday, and each time the United Airlines flight attendant got onto a plane, she asked the mechanics, food service and cabin cleaning crews if they had gone through metal detectors.

For every crew but one, the answer was no. All they'd done was show an ID upon entering the airport grounds.

"I'm just very unnerved," says Lee, who is based in Los Angeles. What's the point of keeping cars out of airport parking lots and subjecting passengers and flight crews to stricter scrutiny, she asks, if ground crews are boarding the planes willy-nilly? "They're on the planes when nobody else is on there," says Lee. "They could plant anything anywhere, tell someone where to get it, and that would be it. Like, 'Hey, it's under seat 9F.' "

Lee said she's been reporting her findings to other flight attendants and to pilots. "They can't believe it," she said, and some of them are relaying the information to union reps.

Another L.A.-based United flight attendant I spoke to says she plans to notify federal officials. "I don't feel comfortable or secure, and I'm hoping to get it changed," she says. She, like Lee, asked that I not use her name. They're afraid they'll lose their jobs.

The image of hundreds of thousands of unscreened ground crews boarding planes across the United States is unsettling enough. Just as scary, there is no consistent security policy from airline to airline or airport to airport. A San Francisco International Airport spokesman told me it's "logistically impossible" to subject ground crews to metal detection screenings, so they're doing background checks and reissuing ID badges.

A source familiar with security measures at LAX told me he was under the impression that more and more service employees were being checked with a metal detection wand before boarding planes. But Lee, the United flight attendant, reports only one instance in eight days in which a ground crew got that treatment.

You'd think the FAA would make sure everybody was on the same page. But a spokesman says it is up to airlines and airports to administer security on their own.

Any of this make you eager to take to the sky?

In the interest of clarification, and for a response to the concerns of the United Airlines flight attendants, I put in a call to United spokesman Alan Wayne. A half-minute into our conversation, he asked if I was the guy who wrote the column last Friday about holes in air security.

Yes, I said. "That was some cheap shot at us," he said. "I really have nothing further to say to you."

And then he hung up.

A cheap shot?

I wrote a column pointing out that before getting on a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, I met a woman who had carried pepper spray through three airport checkpoints. I also noted that the security team was half asleep when my carry-on bags went through on the belt.

I wasn't going to mention this, but the two United flight attendants quoted above have gone through security with a pair of scissors and 4- to 5-inch key ring pin since Sept. 11. Lee adds that on the tarmac level at LAX, the security guard at flight operations didn't look up from her book when Lee got off the elevator.

Your own flight attendants are a little concerned, Mr. Alan Wayne. Same as the rest of us.

As I said Friday, you're working for an industry that gouges its customers, treats its employees like they're disposable, installs the cheapest security system money can buy, then bellies up to the trough for a $15-billion bailout.

If raising questions about all of that--and demanding better security in the wake of four jets being hijacked in holy war suicide missions--makes me a cheap shot artist in your little world, then c'est la vie.

But the experience does reinforce my belief that if we want safer airports and skies, we can't rely on the airlines to get it done.

We all know by now that there's no way to plug all the holes, but we've also learned we can do a lot better.

For starters, is it too much to ask that the same security standards be federally imposed and enforced at every airport in the country?

And as for the National Guard troops that are being marched in, stationing them inside the airport to watch bored and underpaid security guards go through the motions isn't going to make us any safer. They're only being put there to make us think we're safer. Put them someplace where they can make a difference, like frisking ground crews on the tarmac. Or put them to work on the biggest security hole, which is the baggage that goes into the belly of the plane and never gets checked by man or machine.

If it makes for more inconvenience, we'll have to adjust.

If fewer people fly, so be it.

If one or two airlines go under, the world will not end.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), October 03, 2001

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