Security Is Tailored to Airports

Under the TSA's direction, airports in the West await go-ahead on new measures

By: R. Scott Macintosh

The nation’s airports are responding to another period of heightened security levels, but they are doing so in different ways under the directive of the Transportation Security Authority (TSA).

The TSA has managed the mobilization of increased security since the federal government assumed responsibility for screening luggage and passengers last year.

But the security measures that are put in place vary, depending on the information federal authorities have about specific threats, the size of the airport and its location, something that clients may not know as they prepare to travel.

“TSA will take a look at information and put in place a range of security that is consistent with whatever prompted an increase in the threat level,” said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the authority.

“It could be any combination of things depending on the situation.”

This “tailored approach” is meant to ensure the most appropriate security measures for vastly different airports, he said.

So, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raises the threat level, intelligence is assessed and the authority issues directions.

However, the dissemination of those directions is not immediate. Although airport authorities know that security measures are forthcoming each time the homeland security department raises the threat level, it may take some time to distribute them.

For example, the day after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the threat advisory from an elevated condition, Yellow, to a high condition, Orange, the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were still waiting for directions.

“As soon as threat level changes, there are certain things that come down that we know we need to do,” said Hilarie S. Grey, a spokeswoman at McCarran. “We’re just waiting to hear from them.”

Turmail said the delay was typical as it takes time for some airports to receive the needed legal notices and even more time to deploy the resources.

“There is no magic switch that we can turn on and off,” he said. “It takes some time. But the fact that we are at a high security level means that everyone is going to be extra vigilant.”

Other airports, however, are quicker to respond because of their high profile.

Honolulu International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport both had security in place, including random car checks, the day after the threat level was increased.

Because of the high volume of passengers coming through Los Angeles and the military installations around Honolulu, both airports are considered priority facilities and either have security in place already or respond quickly.

“We’ve always been on a higher level since 911,” said Davis Yogi, the airport administrator in Honolulu.

“We are close to some military bases, and have joint uses. Pearl Harbor is just a hop and a skip away. So we’ve been on a FAA level similar to Orange. We’ve been in Orange for a while.”

Each airport has a TSA employee, called a federal security director, who helps coordinate security operations with federal, state and local authorities.

In some cases, state law supersedes federal mandates. One of the most noticeable security precautions entails random car checks at airport entrances, but not all airports will have them.

In Washington State, random checkpoints violate the state’s constitution, which prohibits random searches of vehicles. Other states, including Oregon, have similar issues.

“There has to be something out of the ordinary for us to search a car,” said Bob Parker, a spokesman for Sea-Tac Airport. Most security measures are consistent, however, and include such things as signs reminding people to be cautious, extra canine patrols, changes in airport parking or stationing police cars outside airport entry gates.

Other security measures are largely unseen and confidential.

For example, the number of plainclothes police and federal agents patrolling airports often are increased without fanfare when a threat level is high.

“The last time a Code Orange was issued, most of what we we’re asked to do was invisible to the public,” Grey said.