What a disgrace!

Old Nov 25, 01, 10:40 pm
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What a disgrace!

Unplugged machine delays thousands; Sea-Tac concourses evacuated

By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter
In the high-tech world of surveillance and security, it was a low-tech problem that delayed 100 flights and thousands of passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport yesterday: an unplugged metal detector.
Mike Fergus, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the problem was noticed about 9 a.m. by a member of the National Guards who have been supplementing airport security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The discovery led to the evacuation of all airport concourses. Passengers, including some who had already boarded planes, were sent back to the main terminal to go through checkpoints again after security workers and bomb-sniffing dogs swept through the airport. Some flights were delayed up to three hours.

A TWA flight that had already taken off was ordered to return to Sea-Tac to have its passengers screened. Other outbound flights already in the air were allowed to proceed, but their destination airports were instructed to screen the travelers on arrival, before allowing them into passenger areas of those airports.

This isn't the first time one of the machines has come unplugged, said Jack Evans, spokesman for Alaska Airlines, which is responsible for the checkpoint and contracts the work out to a private firm, Huntleigh USA of St. Louis.

"It's definitely something that needs to be addressed," Evans said, adding that the plug on another device came loose from an outlet about a year ago and that the manufacturer had been contacted to see how to prevent future occurrences.

The machines plug into outlets on the floor and locking devices are supposed to keep the plugs in place, Evans said, but the machine involved in yesterday's incident is new and the lock had not yet been installed.

Incoming flights were allowed to land during the evacuation, but their passengers were kept on board until the airport concourses were reopened.

Evans said he doesn't know what kind of indicator the device has to show whether it's working, and a Huntleigh official at Sea-Tac declined to comment.

A Huntleigh manager and supervisor were suspended after an incident at Sea-Tac on Nov. 13 in which some 7,000 passengers on 50 flights were delayed when the airport was shut down for an hour because a food-service worker went past a security point after being asked to stop.

Under legislation recently passed by Congress, many airport-security functions now performed by contractors such as Huntleigh will be conducted by federal employees within a few months.

After yesterday's discovery, crowds thickened rapidly in the main terminal, as those returning from the concourses merged with the growing number of people just arriving at Sea-Tac, producing a maze of lines some hundreds of people long at security checkpoints and ticket counters.

"I've been traveling overseas quite a bit since Sept. 11, but I haven't been through anything like this," said Tokyo-bound passenger Heather Steele, a Nebraska resident stationed at a Navy base in Seoul.

The unplugged machine is one of six walk-through metal detectors at the airport's northernmost security point, through which passengers proceed to the D Concourse and North Satellite.

Evans said that particular detector is used for crew, employees, passengers with no carry-on bags and the airline's most frequent customers. He said some airline crew members who passed through the device about 15 minutes before the incident said it was working at the time.

At first, only the concourses directly served by that checkpoint were ordered evacuated, but, fearing that passengers could have gone to other gates, officials ordered all concourses and satellites evacuated about 9:40 a.m.

Metal detectors around the airport were checked as a precaution.

Carol Coram of Seattle, bound for Mobile, Ala., had gone through a security checkpoint and was in a gift shop on the B Concourse when a National Guardsman told everyone to go back to the main terminal.

Until then, Coram said she had been surprised how smoothly things had proceeded both at the check-in counter and security point. "I'm not surprised, though, I got out here three hours early in anticipation of something. I just didn't know what it would be."

But Gene Bell of Okanogan was one of the many passengers grumbling. Bell arrived from San Diego and wasn't sure when or if he would catch his connecting flight to Spokane. "By now you'd think they'd have better equipment and be better organized," he said. "This seems kind of ridiculous."

An average of 85,000 passengers a day move through Sea-Tac during a typical Thanksgiving weekend, said Rachel Garson, an airport spokeswoman.


Did anyone get stuck in this mess?

I would be so ticked off!
whlinder is offline  

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