Experts: U.S. airports safe, but Egyptian breach may bring crackdown

Updated 11/9/2015 6:44 PM
  • Body scans at O'Hare are among safety protocols, but is enough being done to protect passengers from an inside job?

      Body scans at O'Hare are among safety protocols, but is enough being done to protect passengers from an inside job? Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, November 2010

Shoes off. Belt off. Shampoo in a three-ounce container.

Americans know the airport security drill well, but with fears growing that a planted bomb downed a Russian jet in Egypt, how safe are Midway and O'Hare passengers from someone on the inside doing the unthinkable?

The government is enhancing security on flights bound for the U.S. from certain foreign airports, authorities announced Friday.

But no immediate moves to change procedures at domestic airports have arisen amid assertions from U.S., British and Russian authorities that a bomb caused Metrojet Flight 9268 to break up shortly after takeoff Oct. 31 from Sharm el Sheikh.

U.S. fliers can take heart that the "TSA has created the most hardened security infrastructure in the world," University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign aviation security expert Sheldon Howard Jacobson said.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Monday that he "will be working in Congress to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security is able to continue to improve the airport screening process and respond to any potential new threats."

Who may have put a bomb on the plane is the wild card now, with investigators interviewing everyone from airport workers to hotel employees where people on the doomed flight stayed, according to reports.

"Right now they've got to figure how an explosive device got on the airplane ... nothing is off the table," said Howard, a computer science, mathematics and engineering professor.

But once the security weakness is identified, "I've got a gut feeling it won't apply to the United States," he said.

That doesn't mean, however, that discovery of a vulnerability abroad won't reopen debate about shoring up the domestic front.

"Incidents like the Russian plane crash and the Aurora (air traffic control) facility fire raise safety and security concerns at airports," said U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, a Plano Republican and former Transportation Committee member.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a pilot, said she was committed to ensuring the Department of Homeland Security coordinated with law enforcement and the Chicago Department of Aviation. It's crucial to "make sure our nation's airport operators are provided the guidance, assistance and resources necessary to continually monitor and assess the security of airport workers," the Hoffman Estates Democrat said.

Currently Transportation Security Administration officers "undergo a rigorous background investigation to include criminal history records checks, finances ... etcetera," spokesman Michael McCarthy said.

Numerous employers ranging from the U.S. government to airlines to the city of Chicago hire workers at Midway and O'Hare. For example, baggage handlers are employed by airlines.

"We are working closely with the Transportation Security Administration and all available intelligence sources, and we will continue to follow their guidance on the appropriate security procedures at airports we serve," United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart said.

Some, like frequent business flier Arlen Gould of Wheeling, think the government should up its game. Gould was alarmed in September when TSA agents opened the Pre-Check line at O'Hare to all passengers. Pre-Check allows prescreened travelers to pass quickly through security. Gould, who has Pre-Check status, was told that bomb-sniffing dogs were being used but he considered that inadequate.

"I don't get it," said Gould, a Wheeling Township Elementary School District 21 board member. "It seems like they're looking for a way to save money on bodies. But it's frustrating. It's my life, and my family's, and everyone else's."

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