Warning that "alarming lapses" remain in the United States' air transportation system, the government's chief transportation watchdog announced plans Wednesday to conduct an undercover operation in the next week to ensure tight security measures are in place by the Thanksgiving travel period.
While airport security is noticeably tighter since terrorists hijacked and crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Department of Transportation inspector general Kenneth Mead said, "There are still alarming lapses of security and some systemic vulnerabilities that need to be closed."
Testifying before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Mead said nearly 90 security breaches have occurred since Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta announced Oct. 30 a "zero-tolerance" policy to enforce rules.
Mead provided only one example: a passenger at Baltimore-Washington International Airport who he said was "testing security" on her own with a box cutter concealed in a makeup kit. The passenger made it through security checks.
Mead's office declined to provide other examples, citing security concerns, or identify the airports that have had the most problems.
But during the hearing, lawmakers mentioned several other incidents. Aside from the well-publicized failure of screeners to stop a passenger from carrying knives and a stun gun through a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, breaches have included a security officer who briefly left an exit at Logan Airport unattended, and a passenger who arrived in Chicago on a flight from Miami International Airport with two meat cleavers in his carryon bags.
Mead also said airport security workers are not putting as much checked baggage as they could through bomb detection systems. A survey by his agency of some airports over the Veterans Day weekend found that 73 percent of the machines were not in continuous use, he said.
At one of the airports, his staff observed one screener scheduled for a 20-hour shift falling asleep.
Such examples stepped up pressure on House and Senate negotiators to end their stalemate over whether workers screening passengers and baggage at airports should be government or private employees, a dispute that has stalled passage of a sweeping air travel security bill.
After a closed-door meeting Wednesday, House and Senate negotiators reported making progress. They are scheduled to resume talks today.
One compromise under consideration would put federal employees in charge of screening but give airports the option of using contract employees for much of the work. These employees would have to meet federal standards.
"Everyone is feeling fairly optimistic" that a deal is in sight, said Andy Davis, an aide to Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., chairman of the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee.
President Bush and others have pressed Congress to send him an aviation security bill before Thanksgiving to help restore public confidence in flying.
Those calls have intensified after the crash in New York on Monday of an American Airlines jet, though no evidence of terrorism has surfaced in that catastrophe.
A bill passed unanimously by the Senate would federalize all airport security personnel. Bush favors the House measure, which would increase federal oversight of airport security but leave it to local administrators to decide whether the personnel should be government or private employees or a mix.
A number of security measures have been taken since the terrorist attacks, such as improving the security of cockpit doors, deploying more air marshals on planes and increasing the use of National Guard troops at airports.
But Mead testified that background checks need to be conducted on all airport employees, citing cases his agency have found where felons have had access to secure areas.
As part of his office's undercover operation to determine if airports are complying with security rules, Mead said his auditors will test how easily they can gain access to restricted areas at airports. He said his employees would also carry prohibited objects in baggage to test screening procedures.
Federal Aviation Administration Jane Garvey, who also testified at the Senate committee hearing, called it "disturbing" that security lapses continue, especially with the approach of the Thanksgiving holiday, when travel loads are forecast to be at their highest levels since the terrorist attacks.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said he had seen improvement in airport security since Sept. 11, but added, "The thing that gets me is that it hasn't been consistent."
Jacqueline Mathes, a United Airlines flight attendant representing the Association of Flight Attendants, said at the hearing that she and her colleagues now start each trip by discussing what they can use on the aircraft for weapons.
"We actually talk about breaking wine bottles to use as weapons to protect ourselves in case of a terrorist attack," she said.
Duane E. Woerth, a Northwest Airlines pilot who is president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said security screening practices remain "exasperating and frustrating to passengers and airline pilots, who may be screened several different ways at several different airports in a single day."