TOPICS > Nation

Safeguarding Airports

July 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Before Thursday’s shooting, Los Angeles Airport officials had proposed a $9.6 billion redesign that would include a remote site to screen all passengers before entering the terminal. So just what are the security questions raised by Thursday’s shooting? We put that to Isaac Yeffet, president of Yeffet Security Consultants. He’s a former head of security for El Al, the Israeli airline involved in the attack yesterday. And David Plavin, president of Airports Council International, which represents commercial airports in the United States and Canada. Isaac Yeffet, Americans have had to become used to a somewhat higher level of security since last fall. Does yesterday’s shooting show that they need more security still?

ISAAC YEFFET: We know that the airports are not protected as they should be protected. The terminals are public areas, wide open– anyone can go and walk at any terminal he wants.

This is, in fact, what happened yesterday with the Egyptian terrorist who came, after doing homework– and I have no doubt that he did homework– to learn where is the terminal of El Al, what time is the flight, when the passengers arrived, what kind of screening… they do screen the passengers and non- passengers. Once he found out that he can go with no problems, he carried on his body two guns and knives, came close to the ticket counter and started opening fire.

Luckily, we have our professional and well-trained security armed people together with the local law enforcement that there are armed also, and after a few seconds, both gave the answer and killed the terrorist, and saved lives of so many innocent people that there were at the terminal at this minute.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David Plavin, Isaac Yeffet is calling into question those open areas still being treated as public places, the entryways to the terminals.

DAVID PLAVIN: The whole question about security is a longstanding issue that has no perfect answer. Security is a balance. It’s a balance of how well you protect people, but it’s also a balance against what you do with them. Can people fly? Can they fly without unnecessary restrictions? And is security at the terminal different in any important respect from security at a baseball stadium, at a shopping center, at any place where people gather? People have come to the notion that airports are symbolic targets, and so we really come to try to put together everything in place at the same time.

You can’t do a security system without trying to do all the things you need to do. You’ve got to have ways of stopping people, but more importantly, as the Israelis know well, you have got to figure out who the problem people are. You’ve got to identify them in advance; you’ve got to stop them before they get them. We are an open society. We could make the security system absolutely perfect if we shut it down, but it doesn’t make any sense to shut down the system — we’ve got to figure out a balance. We always assess risk. Everybody assesses risk. You make a judgment about how safe you are in your car, and you believe that you’re safe because you theoretically have control over it.

And yet we know, statistically, a car is a much less safe to be than any place in the aviation system. So I think it’s really important that we not overreact, that we do a properly planned, properly carried out security system that includes all of the things that Mr. Yeffet mentioned. They are obviously necessary. You can’t do them overnight. You can’t do them in a way that says, let’s bring the system to a stop. It just doesn’t work, and I don’t think that would be a goal that we should be aiming for. We should be aiming to do the things we can do today, and then plan for putting the other pieces in place as we can do them.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Isaac Yeffet, if you look at the way the airports that are already built in the United States are designed, how would you change the way people enter them in a way that could have made yesterday’s attack either less deadly or less likely to happen?

ISAAC YEFFET: I’ll answer you. You mentioned not to overreact. I agree with you 100 percent where we should not overreact, but between overreact and nothing security, there is a big gap between zero and 100. The goal should be to come close to 100 percent gradually, slowly — slowly but surely– that we will be able to secure the passengers and the flights in our country.

We have enough disasters with aircraft that were hijacked and exploded in this country, in Europe, and so on. We don’t need this kind of lack of security in our country. Number two, if you ask me what we should do, I will give you one after one. Number one: We need to hire qualified people and not unqualified and untrained people, undedicated people that are running the security in our country these days.

We need to hire people that, at minimum, they graduated from high school; that they speak English, that they are U.S. citizens, and we can train them a week in a classroom and another ten days on-the-job training to make sure that they know what are the terrorist organizations around the world, what attacks they have done, why they succeeded and we failed, what should be done in order to make sure that this won’t happen in the future. Number two, we have to train them how to read passports and how to read a ticket in order to see what is fake, what is not fake.

We need to train them how to approach the passenger and offer questions that the passenger will understand that we do it for his safety because we stay on the ground and the passenger take the flight, and we want him to arrive safe and secure to his destination. We need to put undercover security armed people at the curbside of the terminal with the uniform of policemen. We need to protect the terminal.

We need to protect the security checkpoint, the gate, the aircraft, the perimeter. This is not something that we can say we overreact. This is the A, B, C of the security that we can say that we need in this country. Another –

RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a response from David Plavin, because you’ve given us a list of a lot of daunting tasks that airports around the country would have to do in fairly short order.

DAVID PLAVIN: I think there is really nothing to take exception to in terms of what Mr. Yeffet says. I think the point is that if you look at the way the statute now is being effectuated, that’s what’s happening. You are hiring probably 50,000, 60,000, probably more people to do personnel and baggage screening.

The problem with that isn’t that it’s a bad idea; the problem is that it’s really hard to imagine how a governmental agency can be set up with 50,000 or 60,000 people in short order of the kinds of characteristics that these employees should have are absolutely right. And that’s indeed what the statute requires, and that’s indeed what the Transportation Security Administration is pursuing.

RAY SUAREZ: But would anything that either of you have suggested have prevented or made less likely or less deadly yesterday’s attempt?

DAVID PLAVIN: Well, I think that’s the point. The point is that all of these things are targeted at particular aspects of the security system. But what we do know is that no matter where you put a barrier, there is always a gathering of people before that barrier trying on get through it, and so I don’t think we should assume that somehow you can make every aspect of a person’s journey 100 percent controlled, that we can actually control how people get into a secure area, because every place has a control point.

The issue about where you do this and how you do this is going to be as important as what you do. And I don’t think that Mr. Yeffet would quarrel with that. The question is how you get started down the road to do it, do it in a systematic way. Recognize that it is going to cost you a lot of money– and I guarantee you, it is a lot more money than anyone has contemplated up to now– with a lot more people to do the job with a lot better qualifications and a lot better training and education regimen than anything we’ve seen up to this point.

I think that’s absolutely right, and I think we have to get there… we have to get there in a way that makes some sense. We can’t just open the door tomorrow and hope that there’ll be somebody standing there with the right qualifications to prevent you from going through it.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Plavin, Mr. Yeffet. Thank you both.