US airports 'loath to pay out for security'

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Air travellers at America's airports were yesterday getting their first taste of hassles and delays associated with the heightened security ordered by President Bill Clinton in the wake of the TWA jumbo jet disaster. For industry experts, however, the call to action carries a strong sense of deja vu.

Some of the measures called for by the President were included in legislation adopted by the US Congress in 1990, in response to the terrorist downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. Eight years on, almost none of the improvements have been implemented.

As analysts continued to scan tapes retrieved from the "black boxes", divers at the crash site yesterday located two of the doomed aircraft's engines and preparations were being made to bring it to the surface. The engines could be vital in determining whether the airliner was struck by mechanical failure or sabotage. "Obviously, they are extraordinarily important," said Robert Francis of the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB).

The engines could also clear up rumours that the plane may have been crippled by a surface-to-air missile. Because they are guided by heat- seeking systems, any missile would probably have made impact at the rear of one of the engines as they roared in the plane's climb.

The new security measures include increased searches of baggage, more interviewing of passengers and comprehensive searches of airplanes on international routes.

More critically, efforts will be accelerated to introduce to all US airports up-to-date baggage-scanning equipment to detect modern bomb components, such as plastic explosives.

The 1990 legislation gave America's airports until 1993 to deploy new scanners, notably the CTX 5000, to replace technology designed to detect hijack weapons such as guns and grenades. While the CTX 5000 is common in Europe, only three are in place in the US, in San Francisco and Atlanta.

A report by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) completed in 1993 concluded that airport security in the US remained "seriously flawed" and "still not adequate". In the same year, undercover government agents managed to penetrate so-called secure areas at US airports 15 times in 20 attempts. Meanwhile, inspections of cargo and mail loaded onto US aircraft remains haphazard at best, with the responsibility given to shippers not airlines.

The delays in upgrading security in the US have been caused by financial problems.Most airlines have, until recently, been operating in the red and are loath to spend around $1m on a CTX 5000.

"Putting airport security in airlines' hands is a bad idea," said Morris Busby, a former head of US counter-terrorism. "The natural inclination in a competitive business is to do it as cheaply as possible."

Scrutiny of voice and data recorders retrieved from the "black boxes" on Thursday will focus on identifying the "brief fraction-of-a-second noise" heard on the cockpit recorder at the instant the tapes went dead. A similar noise was recorded by tapes on Pan-Am 103, which is strengthening assumptions that the TWA plane was also the victim of a bomb. Last night, however, officials were still refusing to rule out mechanical failure.