The Boston clam party and the Brit who revived Logan Airport

With a little help from unusual friends, John Quelch has put Massachusetts on the recovery path after 9/11. Clayton Hirst reports
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The Independent Online

Logan Airport in Boston, which became infamous as the departure point for two of the jets used in the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, has a highly unorthodox collection of security officials. Dressed in long wellington boots and armed with spades, around 50 local clam diggers have been hired by Massa-chusetts Port Authority as part of the effort to turn one of the world's most notorious airports into one of the safest.

Apart from trained anti-terrorism officers carrying sub-machine guns, the diggers are now the only people permitted within 250 feet of the airport on the Boston waterfront. "We have to allow the continuation of clam digging at low tide, so they have all been issued with security passes and they are our volunteer vigilantes around the airport," says John Quelch, chairman of Massachusetts Port Authority, which controls Logan Airport.

This is just one of many initiatives introduced at Logan by Quelch, the British-born businessman and university professor who was hired to sort out the mess at Logan. As Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport as it is more commonly known) prepares to mark the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks with a series of low-key ceremonies, the airport and its administration are now almost unrecognisable from two years ago. Mired in political infighting, squandering millions of dollars and tainted with a whiff of scandal, critics laid into Massport after 9/11.

Quelch - a Harvard Business School professor, a board member of marketing services giant WPP and former non-executive director of easyJet - arrived at Massport in July 2002 after the publication of the critical Carter Commission Report into Logan's security lapses. It followed the resignation of Victoria Buckingham, the chief executive of Massport, who was the only person to lose their job in the aftermath of 11 September.

"My first move was to visit each individual board member in their offices. I had a copy of the Carter Report in my hand. That signalled to them my commitment to implementing the vast majority of recommendations; that got us beyond the weather-related conversations pretty quick," says Quelch.

"As a person with no public agency experience, probably the biggest challenge was figuring out how to play the chairman's role in the public sector. In the first couple of months I did trip over a couple of wires. But I was trying to move things forward expeditiously without having dotted all the 'i's and crossed all the 't's of consultation. As a result I scraped my knees, but fortunately nothing more than that."

The new Massport chairman quickly discovered the authority was highly politicised. "There had been an absence of professional leadership, to put it bluntly. Massport had been used as a patronage sink hole for decades. If you look over the past 15 years, you'll find the political appointment of executive directors - some of whom did not have any significant management experience of large organisations but who had the advantage of the ear of the governor. Some were quite colourful characters."

One example was former Massport executive director Peter Blute. In August 1999 he was forced to resign after it emerged he had gone on a booze cruise around the harbour paid for by his agency. To make matters worse, during the four-hour trip - where Mr Blute later admitted to drinking heavily - one female passenger bared her breasts, which was greeted by whoops and laughter from the other guests. Unfortunately for the Massport director, the incident was captured by a press photographer and the cruise made front page news the next day in Boston's newspapers.

Under Quelch, Massport is a much more sober authority. After joining, he set about imposing strict business principles. This allowed him to cut costs while at the same time enhancing security and rebuilding vast parts of Logan Airport. Out went cosy arrangements where procurement contracts were offered to friendly companies. In its place came a new system where internal audit staff now report directly to the Massport board. He says, diplomatically, that the new system "uncovered laxness which we have been able to correct".

This has resulted in a 13 per cent increase in revenues, year-on-year. Expenses are 10 per cent higher. But when additional spend on security and construction at Logan is excluded, then expenses are down 2 per cent on the year.

Logan is in the process of being almost entirely redeveloped. The $4bn (£2.5bn) programme, which is around 90 per cent complete, has been undertaken while the airport has remained entirely operational. In one case, a new international terminal was constructed on top of the old facility. Logan's departure section has also been redeveloped and Massport hopes to complete a new arrivals area next year.

Logan's problem, says Quelch, was a result of "significant under-investment" during the 1970s and 1980s. He lays some blame with Michael Dukakis, a former governor of Massachusetts and one-time Democratic Party nominee for President.

"He was particularly keen on public transportation in Massachusetts - rail and so on - rather than air travel," says Quelch. "As a result, there was a lack of appreciation of how the expanded demand for air travel was going to put pressure on the existing facilities."

However, he adds that Logan wasn't used by the 11 September hijackers because of its shortcomings. Instead, he says the airport was targeted because it was within 40 minutes' flight time from New York.

Nevertheless, says Quelch, before 11 September "there was a complacency that 'it can't happen here', which resulted in a certain level of ambivalence towards investing in security.

"We owe it to the people who suffered as a result of 9/11 to do our upmost to make Logan Airport a model of security excellence".

In September 2002, Quelch hired Dennis Treece, an ex-intelligence expert with the US Army, as Massport's director of security. He introduced a total baggage screening system and is testing various new security technologies, such as facial recognition, iris scans and fingerprint detectors.

But enlisting the support of Logan's clam diggers as extra pairs of eyes and ears was more by accident than design. The shell fishermen, who live a hand-to-mouth existence, were barred from Logan shores immediately after 11 September. After heavy lobbying and the introduction of a new state law, the diggers were allowed back in November 2002. But this was only after they had received anti-terrorism training, been vetted by the FBI and issued with special black and yellow uniforms.