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Matheson questions airports’ security

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WASHINGTON ? Rep. Jim Matheson told federal officials Wednesday he worries that too many gaps still exist in airline security and that they threaten safety for the Olympics.

At a hearing of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation, Matheson, D-Utah, called on John Magaw, undersecretary of Transportation for security, to increase the number of screeners for hand checks of baggage and for quick deployment of new security technologies.

"In a matter of days, our state and our airport will be inundated with the largest influx of travelers since Sept. 11. The Winter Olympics are a showcase for my state and for our country. Yet, with the evil in the world today, the Olympics could also be a target," Matheson said.

While Matheson said he's pleased that the Transportation Department met deadlines for inspection of checked baggage, he's concerned about how it was implemented.

"Meeting the deadline by passenger-to-bag matching on the first leg of multi-leg flights leaves an obvious gap in our security. Secondly, a suicide bomber does not care whether he is on the same flight as his bomb-laden luggage," he said.

Matheson added, "We need more screeners for more hand inspections. We need to more quickly deploy available technologies. We still have many needs that must be met. I have faith in your ability to get the job done.

"We need these safeguards not just for major events like the Olympics, but for the day-to-day operations of our airports," he said.

Airline attendants say they too remain skittish about security because they are the ones charged with conducting on-board searches ? a task they don't feel qualified for and do not have time to do.

The Association of Flight Attendants contended Thursday that the regular searches for bombs and weapons in airplane cabins, which was recommend by a Transportation Department task force, should be conducted by airline employees specifically trained.

"Trained professionals should be doing this instead of flight attendants," said Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight attendant Brandie Cartwright. She searches the cabin she works in at least once a day. "It's a scary thing to think I'm the one that's responsible," she added.

Many airlines responded by saying they do feel their flight attendants are adequately trained and pointed out that all airline workers, from the pilots to the ramp crew, help out with security.

"ASA flight attendants are uniquely qualified to observe unusual circumstances in the cabin of the airplanes and are highly trained professionals who know appropriate procedures," said Kent Landers, spokesman for Atlantic Southeast.

Army National Guard troops who have been standing sentry at the nation's airports since last fall also would like someone else to take the responsibility for security. Pentagon officials want relief for the 6,000 Guardsmen who have been stationed at more than 400 airports as part of the nation's homeland security.

Army Secretary Thomas White has asked Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta for civilian federal employees to take over those jobs in the next two to three months. He pointed out that the troops' installation at airports was intended by President Bush as a step to use federal control of airline security to coax jittery Americans back into the skies. Bush envisioned them there for up to six months, which would mean through March.

"That's what we needed ? an immediate fix," said Army spokesman Col. Joe Allen. "And the military can do that. But as soon as a permanent solution can be implemented, the secretary has indicated he would like to get the Guard out."

The Guard is needed to help out with next month's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he continued, and other homeland security jobs as well as their normal duties.

Air Force officials as well are rethinking the security operations they took on over American cities immediately after the hijackings. From Sept. 11 to Dec. 10, some 250 airplanes ?including about 100 fighter jets flown by Air National Guard pilots ? have logged 13,000 sorties over New York and Washington around the clock and at random times over other major metropolitan areas and crucial installations. Thousands of people staff the operation, in which jets also are on alert at 30 bases to scramble if called.

Air Force officials said they knew from the onset that the continuous use of manpower and equipment couldn't be kept up without end. Now that four months have passed and aviation security has been improved somewhat, officials wonder if it might be time to start talks about a scaled-back alternative to the patrols.

The combat air patrols are the first of their kind over the United States since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com