Security Lax At Smallest U.S. Airports

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By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2004

If you're flying Scenic Airlines from tiny North Las Vegas Airport to Merced, Calif., you won't be delayed by security procedures. The airport has no metal detectors, no screeners and no X-ray machines for luggage.

Scenic flies 19-seat planes to other small western cities and plans to begin service soon to Palmdale, Calif., putting its turboprops within 60 miles of Los Angeles. Swift boarding at the North Las Vegas airport -- in contrast to the slow going at nearby McCarran International Airport -- is a selling point that Scenic highlights in its marketing pitches to travel agents, airports and passengers.

"It's like the old days," said Mitzy Daines, director of business development at Scenic. "You can show up for our flights 30 or 40 minutes before the flight departs."

North Las Vegas is one of more than two dozen small airports across the country that lack security operations common at large airports. Some of these airports have daily scheduled service to major airports such as Dallas/Fort Worth International and Albuquerque International. Mesa Airlines, a leading regional carrier, operates out of several of the tiny airports.

The government took over airport security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but excluded the nation's smallest airports. More than a year after the changes, many of these airports are still without metal-detection equipment and federal screeners despite pleadings by airport managers, some airlines and local members of Congress. Airport officials worry that terrorists could exploit the gaps in security. At the airports without metal detectors, airport and airline officials acknowledge that a passenger could easily smuggle a gun or other weapon aboard.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees security nationwide, says the small planes leaving the airports pose less of a security risk than Boeing 747s filling the skies above major metropolitan areas because they carry less fuel and fly at slower speeds than the big jets.

"Hijacking a small airplane and crashing it into a building may not cause a lot of death and destruction, but it would be a psychological impact -- a victory for terrorists," said George Downie, airport director at Hot Springs Memorial Field in Arkansas, where Mesa has three daily flights to Dallas.

The number of travelers passing through small airports varies from a few hundred a year to tens of thousands. North Las Vegas Airport, among the busiest of the small facilities, had 64,900 passengers in 2002, the latest year for which data are available.

The level of security also varies. The Hot Springs airport has three TSA security workers who use handheld metal detectors to screen passengers, and checked luggage is examined for explosives.

The seven Montana airports served by Big Sky Airlines have no metal-detection equipment, no security screening and no checking of luggage for explosives, according to the airline. The airline's 19-passenger Fairchild Metroliner aircraft do not have cockpit doors.

Brownwood Regional Airport in Texas is also without metal detectors, security screeners and X-ray machines for luggage. Passengers boarding flights at the facility, which is about 185 miles north of San Antonio, are required to show identification, and their names are checked against a "watch list" of known and suspected terrorists. Mesa Airlines operates 19-seat turboprop planes from Brownwood, population 20,000, to Dallas. Government rules do not require that smaller aircraft have a reinforced cockpit door.

The TSA, after assessing conditions at some of the small airports, said it would upgrade security at seven of them and is assessing more than two dozen others.

"Threat assessment is not a one-time procedure," TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said. "If something has changed in terms of the volume of traffic, the size of the aircraft, the number of flight operations or routes, that would come under the analysis we would perform. We're constantly evaluating security procedures."

Downie, the airport director in Hot Springs, said he and three other managers of small airports in Arkansas repeatedly called representatives in Congress and the TSA for a year to get screeners at their airports. The federal screeners started their jobs a year after their counterparts at large airports. Downie said the screeners arrived just before a TV news crew was about to broadcast a story on the issue. "We've been concerned since Day One," he said.

The TSA said passengers arriving at a major hub on small planes must go through security before boarding a connecting flight. In Dallas, for example, passengers from Hot Springs or Brownwood are bused to the terminal entrance to pass through security.

Mesa chief executive Jonathan Ornstein questions the need for big-city security procedures at the tiny airports his airline serves. "When there are more TSA people than passengers, you have to ask yourself, does that make sense?" Ornstein said. "There comes a point where you have to apply at least some concept of cost-benefit analysis and determine whether having full-time security" is worth it, he said.

At Big Sky Airlines, many passengers have asked why security measures are lacking at the airports the carrier serves, according to spokesman Craig Denney. "Why shouldn't customers at these smaller cities have the same level of security as those traveling out of larger cities?" he said.

Daines, the business development director at Scenic Airlines, laughed when asked whether the lack of security at North Las Vegas posed a risk. "We're flying Twin Otters, one of the slowest planes out there," she said. "If you hit the Hoover Dam, it would bounce off."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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