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Tough penalties weighed for security scofflaws

The recent shutdown of the Newark, New Jersey, airport after a security breach is drawing calls for harsher penalties for those who commit the offense.
Airport Screening Penalties
Passengers fill the terminal after a security breach shut down Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., Jan. 3. Rich Schultz / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Georgia man dashes through a checkpoint at the Atlanta airport and gets 10 days in jail. A British man in a hurry bypasses security in Philadelphia and gets a $500 fine. A drunken man stumbles onto a Chicago airfield and gets 18 months' supervision. All caused major air travel delays costing millions of dollars — and all got what critics call a slap on the wrist.

The recent shutdown of the Newark, New Jersey, airport after a similar breach is drawing calls for harsher penalties and highlights concerns about punishments not much worse than what someone would get for tossing a hamburger wrapper out the car window on the highway.

At least one senator wants to make such trespasses a federal offense. Other ideas include six-figure fines and flying bans, though security experts and traveler advocates doubt whether harsher punishments will deter anybody from breaking the rules. They suggest a better way to prevent breaches is by improving training of airport security staffs — and perhaps using new technology to help them.

"In most cases, it's a stupid mistake," said Douglas Laird, who runs an airport security consulting business in Reno, Nevada. "Most people don't say: 'I'm going to breach.'"

Bill would call for tougher penalties
The bill proposed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey will call for the tougher penalties, but he has not offered specifics other than calling for allowing the federal government to charge people who create scares — even those who are just absent-minded or wrongheaded. Such offenses are now regulated by local law and often fall far down the scale of criminal offenses.

The man charged in the Jan. 3 New Jersey case, 28-year-old Rutgers University graduate student Haisong Jiang, faces only a $500 fine — the same as a first offense for littering in New Jersey — if he's convicted in municipal court. Friends have said he walked through a terminal exit to say goodbye to his girlfriend before she flew to Los Angeles.

A video shows a guard leaving his post right before Jiang slips under the ropes. The guard, an employee of the federal Transportation Security Administration, has been suspended.

The violation delayed or canceled about 200 flights around the world, affected an estimated 16,000 travelers and may have cost airlines millions as a terminal was emptied and passengers were rescreened.

The TSA now says it's evaluating its security practices.

There have been several other costly situations over the past decade in which the perpetrators have gotten off light:

  • A Georgia man was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 500 hours of community service — and barred from attending University of Georgia football games — for passing through a checkpoint at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, one of the world's busiest, causing major problems just two months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
  • A British hairdresser whose sprint to catch a flight led to the shutdown of Philadelphia International Airport in 2002 was fined $500, plus $148 in court costs. A possible one-year jail sentence was suspended.
  • A man who walked onto the airfield at Chicago Midway Airport in 2006 was sentenced to 18 months of supervision.

Focus misplaced?
Laird, a former security director at Northwest Airlines, said the focus on wanderers is misplaced. The vast majority people of who nearly breach, he said, don't know they're about to go astray and get turned back before there's any kind of problem.

He also pointed out that there's no record in the U.S. of a terrorist attack at the hands of someone entering a secure zone through an exit.

Security guards had more incentives to catch scofflaws before the TSA was created as a response to the 9/11 attacks, he said. Back then, airlines had a bigger role in security, and they could be fined for each breach.

"With TSA now in the position of guarding the door, they don't fine themselves for their mistakes," Laird said.

Greater penalties for offending passengers wouldn't hurt, but unless officials impose fines that run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, they wouldn't pay for the damages they do, Laird said.

John Galasso, president of Empire Security Consultants Corp., a New York City-based company that works with airports, said that Jiang deserves to be punished — he suggested banning him from flying for a few years — but that he doesn't think that would deter this kind of breach.

"There's always one" person who doesn't realize the seriousness of airport rules, he said.

Restricting access even more
Hiring people with law-enforcement background to work for the TSA could help, he said, as would portals that could further limit access to restricted areas.

Rafi Ron, a private security consultant and the former security director at Israel's famously secure Ben Gurion International Airport, said the issues exposed by the Newark breach go beyond something that could be solved by better technology or procedures.

"It's a failure to understand the meaning of information in security terms, and this is a very strong indication we have a problem with our analytic capacity, and we need much more understanding of security in the intelligence community," he said.

Michael Cintron, director of consumer and traveler affairs for the International Airline Passenger Association, said his group doesn't object to stiffer penalties for travelers responsible for breaches — as long as those penalties are clearly posted in the airport.

But he said it's hard to blame the travelers for problems when security guards don't do their jobs.

"The onus in that case is on those in charge of security for that location," he said.