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Crashes in NYC had grim origins at Logan

By Peter J. Howe and Matthew Brelis, Globe Staff, 9/12/2001

Long-standing concerns about the adequacy of security at Boston's Logan International Airport took on new weight yesterday after two jets that had taken off from Boston were hijacked and later crashed into the twin World Trade Center towers in New York.

By last evening, airport and law enforcement officials had offered no information about who took over the Los Angeles-bound American Airlines Flight 11 and United Air Lines Flight 175 or how, or whether, the hijackers had help from others on the ground who could have smuggled in weapons before takeoff. The flights left within the same 15-minute span as jets leaving Newark and Dulles International Airport that were also hijacked and crashed, one into the Pentagon, in a terror campaign of astonishing precision.

As the Federal Aviation Administration shut down all US air travel yesterday, Logan officials began evacuating and sealing the airport. Logan was expected to remain closed ''indefinitely.''

Last evening, Massachusetts Port Authority aviation director Thomas Kinton said whenever Logan reopens, there will probably be ''very significant'' security changes, including no more curbside luggage check-in and a ban on anyone except registered passengers passing checkpoints.

Massport security director Joseph Lawless, a longtime state trooper who was Governor William F. Weld's chauffeur in the early 1990s, said Logan tower operators received no communications from either plane that anything was amiss before contact with the planes was handed off to national air traffic control operators in Nashua and Long Island.

''Everything seemed normal when they left Logan,'' said Lawless, who said the American flight left with 92 people on board at 7:59 a.m. and the United flight with 65 people at 8:14 a.m.

Lawless would not divulge details regarding what Massport knows about who may have been able to get through Logan security and seize control of the planes, but said, ''We have a very high security standard here. We are as secure, if not more secure, than any other airport in the US.'' Nevertheless, Lawless said Logan will remain closed ''indefinitely ... until we receive some directives from the FAA.''

The American flight left from Gate 26 in Terminal B, and the United flight from Gate 19 in Terminal C. One airport employee said nothing unusual was apparent when the American flight left, and airline workers learned almost simultaneously that there had been explosions at the World Trade Center and that air traffic control had lost contact with the American flight.

A flight that left Boston for Cleveland yesterday morning was detained on arrival for a search in a secured area, according to a spokesman for Cleveland Mayor Michael White.

While Logan officials insisted they have hewed to ''high-security standards,'' in recent years safety concerns have repeatedly been raised at Logan, including by some Massport officials concerned about the reliability of low-paid private security company officials charged with inspecting baggage for weapons and keeping intruders out of secure areas.

From 1997 through early 1999, the FAA found at least 136 security violations at Logan, including easy access to parked planes and lax baggage inspections. Massport, which operates Logan, and airlines operating there were fined $178,000 for security lapses during the period.

In one spectacular security breach during the summer of 1999, a Brookline teenager was able to climb over an airport security fence, walk 2 miles across the tarmac, get through a jetway door that should have been locked, and stow away on a British Airways 747 headed to London. In April 2000, Massport said it was permanently locking 26 of about 300 doors that lead from terminal buildings onto tarmacs after a September 1999 Boston Globe investigation found that doors were frequently left open, potentially allowing terrorists access to airplanes on the ground.

Brian Sullivan, a retired FAA special agent who had been working to focus congressional and media attention on security concerns at Logan, said yesterday, ''If a determined terrorist wants to take out a target, they will get it. The question we have to ask is, `Have we done everything possible to prevent that?' and I think the answer is no.''

''Two of the planes flew out of Logan, but I don't think Logan is weaker than any other airport. The problem is systemic,'' Sullivan said. ''Morale problems are horrendous'' among FAA security staff whose job includes trying to prevent terrorists from boarding planes. ''All you need to do is look at turnover and employee satisfaction,'' Sullivan added.

Sullivan, like many other security specialists, said the weak link in aviation security is the low-paid employees hired to work at security checkpoints by private security firms that are contracted by the airlines.

A former Massport official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that for years airport officials have been concerned about ''the quality of the people hired, basically at the minimum wage, to check your bags. There were a lot of people at Massport who said this was the weak link.''

However, this official noted that it would be hard to single out Logan for blame yesterday in light of the simultaneous hijackings of flights from Newark and Dulles.

For terrorists determined to bring down the World Trade Center, Logan would be a natural target because transcontinental flights filled with jet fuel could be commandeered soon after takeoff, Massport's Kinton said.

On the issue of weapons getting into the plane, Kinton said, ''We don't know what, if anything, got through any of the three airports involved.''

Sullivan agreed that in general, ''the screeners at checkpoints are not well educated. You can't keep up with their background checks. There is high turnover and low pay. And that is our front line of security. It can't be.''

Responsibility for security at Logan is split among Massport and its State Police Troop E contingent, which oversees the airport perimeter, parking areas, and terminal space, and the airlines themselves, which hire contractors to staff the security checkpoints for passengers boarding flights and inspections of baggage being loaded into cargo holds.

Danielle Crosby, a spokeswoman for Globe Aviation Services, an East Boston-based company identified as American's security contractor in Logan's Terminal B, said the company could make ''no comment about anything because of the national security issues.''

Massport officials identified the security company that runs United's checkpoint at Logan as Huntley Security. Efforts to locate Huntley officials for comment were unsuccessful yesterday.

The 136 violations found by the FAA in the 1997-2000 monitoring came after plainclothes agents were able to board airplanes parked overnight at gates and walk into restricted areas without facing questions. People hired to operate luggage screening devices also routinely failed to detect test items such as pipe bombs and guns.

According to three sources interviewed by the Globe, a flight attendant on the American flight called back to Boston to report that flight attendants and passengers had been stabbed by a knife-wielding assailant who slit their throats - raising questions about whether a knife may have been smuggled through security or stashed ahead of time on the plane.

Cathal Flynn, the FAA's associate administrator for civil aviation security from December 1993 through October 2000, said he was ''horrified and saddened'' by the attacks. ''At the same time, I wondered how do you deal with the problem of determined, suicidal attackers,'' Flynn said.

''I worried about this sort of thing and other sorts of things constantly,'' Flynn said. ''To be involved in security is to be worried, and then to transfer that worry from something that is just debilitating to something that is conscious, systematic work to improve things. It's a tough thing to do in a free country and a system based on free enterprise.''

Flynn said any free country will always struggle to maintain security. ''Israel is a highly security-conscious place, and yet people are being killed by suicidal attackers. It is an enormously difficult problem,'' Flynn said.

In late July, the FAA announced it would seek $99,000 in civil penalties against American Airlines for a total of nine security breaches last year on six flights, including one from Logan to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

During an assessment of American's passenger pre-screening and checked baggage security on June 25, 2000, FAA special agents found that the airline had improperly transported unaccompanied bags on five flights, failed to perform a passenger ID check on two flights, and failed to ask appropriate security questions about checked bags on two flights.

The FAA did not say which violations occurred on the Boston-Chicago flight or on the other flights, which were from Washington's Ronald Reagan National to Miami International, Denver International to Dallas/Fort Worth International, San Diego International to Reno Tahoe International, San Jose International to Los Angeles International, and Lambert St. Louis International to Chicago's O'Hare.

The FAA said American took immediate corrective actions at the airports where the alleged violations were reported.

One of the more spectacular Logan security breaches occurred in July 1999 when a 17-year-old Brookline youth who hoped to impress Israeli spies cut razor wire from the top of a Logan perimeter fence, walked hundreds of yards across supposedly secured areas, then through a jetway door normally protected by a combination lock, and stowed away aboard a British Airways Boeing 747 jetliner headed to London. The youth was arrested after he arrived in England.

In the late 1990s, the FAA took steps to beef up security at Logan, including buying 600 machines to detect traces of explosives in passenger bags, but FAA investigators found many went unused, and many security staffers were never trained in how to use them.

Glen Johnson, Kimberly Blanton, and Stephanie Stoughton of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.