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Ahead of the line

Logan puts lessons from 9/11 to work, moving to forefront of airport security

Tough security measures at Logan have drawn industry accolades — and criticism from passengers and privacy advocates. Tough security measures at Logan have drawn industry accolades — and criticism from passengers and privacy advocates. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / August 29, 2010

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It has been nearly a decade since Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked two planes that took off from Logan International Airport and flew them into the World Trade Center. Now, Logan is viewed as one of the safest airports in the country — a distinction that can be both a blessing and a curse.

It was the first US airport to test an Israeli technique for identifying suspicious passengers, the first to arm its police with submachine guns, and the only one to train all its front-line employees to identify suspicious behavior. Even the fishermen digging for clams on the airport’s shores and the workers in the terminal shops have been enlisted to watch for security threats.

Because of efforts like these, Transportation Security Administration administrator John Pistole recently called Logan “one of the best, most secure airports in the country.’’

The security at Logan — and across the nation — has evolved dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Before then, the bulk of security at US airports was provided by metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs, security lines were manned by private contractors, and checked bags were loaded onto planes without being scanned for explosives. Today, with the US government in charge of security checkpoints, passengers have to remove their shoes and are sometimes subjected to pat-downs and X-rays that reveal their naked bodies, and all checked luggage — and cargo traveling on passenger planes — is now screened.

Logan, which was heavily scrutinized after 9/11, has gone above and beyond what is required by the government, including instituting a daily 8:30 a.m. security meeting and installing concrete barriers in front of the terminals and shatter-proof glass in the windows. In addition to the 1,100 TSA workers at Logan, several hundred employees are dedicated solely to security at the airport. And Massport said it considers all 14,000 airport workers to be part of its security team, with everyone from gate agents to bus drivers to janitors trained by the State Police to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior as part of its Logan Watch program.

“There isn’t any part of the wide list of vul nerabilities that we had in 2001 that hasn’t been addressed to some degree,’’ said George Naccara, TSA’s federal security director at Logan, which in 2004 was recognized by the trade publication Air Safety Week as the inaugural winner of its Exceptional Performance in Airport Security award.

But being at the forefront of the nation’s airport security efforts also means Logan — the nation’s 20th-busiest airport, serving 25.5 million passengers last year — is among the first to draw criticism from passengers and privacy advocates when it rolls out controversial new security measures.

In March, the airport sparked privacy concerns after it installed full-body scanners that show naked images of passengers’ bodies — the first airport to be a part of this year’s widespread rollout of the machines. This month, Logan was blasted again after it became one of the first two airports to use an enhanced pat-down in which agents slide the palms of their hands along passengers’ bodies, including their groins. Both measures were rolled out in the aftermath of a Nigerian man’s attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit using explosives concealed in his underwear.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has weighed in on the enhanced security measures, criticizing the “seemingly constant erosion of privacy’’ that may not actually be doing anything to prevent a terrorist attack.

“There are reports that terrorists already have methods that can get around these measures, such as implanting explosives in people’s bodies,’’ said local ACLU spokesman Christopher Ott. “We really question the assumption that we can all be safe if we just give up enough privacy.’’

Passengers have lashed out about the invasion of privacy, too. All told, the TSA receives about 100 calls per month from Logan passengers, ranging from complaints about full-body scanners to inquiries about items missing from their checked luggage.

Logan officials acknowledge that some of the security measures are intrusive, but they say it’s a necessary step as security techniques — and terrorist threats — evolve.

“We are more secure with this pat-down, but it comes at some cost,’’ said Dennis Treece, director of corporate security for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan. “We all knew that right after 9/11, the biggest vulnerability we had was our freedoms.’’

And despite the increasingly intrusive screening methods, the number of complaints against Logan has gone down over the years, said TSA’s Naccara, as travelers have gotten used to the heightened security.

Kendall Romine is one of those passengers. Romine, an 18-year-old Stanford University soccer player, got an enhanced pat-down from a female TSA agent at Logan last week because her foot is in a cast with metal parts. While the experience was “awkward’’ and “very uncomfortable,’’ she said, she knows it’s all in the name of safety.

“It seems a little extreme, but I understand why they’re going through such measures,’’ Romine said.

Still, not everyone is convinced that all these extra layers of security make the airport safer. Security specialist Bruce Schneier said Logan’s efforts are merely “security theater’’ that simply prevent terrorists from doing something they have already done.

“The car ride to the airport is still, by far, the most dangerous part of the trip,’’ Schneier said. “Exactly two things have made us safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door and passengers realizing they have to fight back. Everything else has been a complete waste of money.’’

But airport security measures continue to increase. By the end of the year, 450 full-body scanners are expected to be in place across the country, and 500 more are on the books for next year. The TSA is in the process of working with technology companies to develop new software that shows a generic stick figure instead of an actual image of a passenger’s body as it scans for weapons and explosives. The TSA is also upgrading its checkpoint technology, improving X-ray machines and explosive trace detection swabs, adding liquid scanners to screen medically necessary liquids, and streamlining its system for screening checked baggage.

And Logan, which this fall is adding hundreds of closed-circuit TV cameras to increase surveillance in terminals, checkpoints, and baggage handling areas, plans to continue to push to be a leader in airport security. “It happened here. Two of our airplanes were hijacked, many of our citizens were killed,’’ said Thomas Kinton, Massport president. “It’s an ownership of an event, if you will, that was life-changing.’’

Logan security director Treece imagines a “checkpoint of the future,’’ developed in part by Logan’s Center of Excellence, the airport’s program for testing new security technology. In this futuristic checkpoint, passengers will simply be scanned as they walk down a corridor, with no machines or humans invading their privacy.

Treece said his dream is, “You walk from the curb to the airplane and you don’t take anything off and you don’t put anything down.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.