RAND Study Recommends Faster Check-In, Improved Screening As Short-Term Security Improvements at Los Angeles Airport

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September 24, 2004

Speeding passenger check-in at Los Angeles International Airport is the most cost-effective short-term measure available to improve airport security and reduce the impact of a potential terrorist attack, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

Improving the speed of check-in by adding employees to check luggage would significantly reduce the size of crowds in public spaces at LAX, making the airport a less-appealing target to terrorists and reducing potential casualties should terrorists strike, according to the study.

Researchers estimate that increasing the number of airport check-in and screening workers by just 5 percent could reduce fatalities by 80 percent should terrorists detonate a hand-held luggage bomb in a check-in area — a scenario researchers consider plausible.

Making the check-in changes proposed in the RAND report would require about $1 million in capital costs and $4 million in increased annual operating expenses, the study estimates. By contrast, directing all vehicles to remote parking lots would require $259 million in capital costs and another $10 million in annual operating costs, according to the report.

“We found there are a number of lower-cost measures that can be taken in the short term to harden the airport to terrorist attacks, while city leaders consider long-term strategies to address the risks posed by terrorism,” said Donald Stevens, a RAND senior analyst who headed the study.

The recommendations by RAND researchers are included in the findings of a two-month study of LAX carried out to identify security vulnerabilities and determine the best near-term options for improving security at the airport.

RAND researchers assessed the vulnerabilities at LAX to a plausible terrorist attack, concluding that a bomb smuggled into the airport in cargo, a vehicle or luggage poses the greatest and most plausible risk to the airport.

The researchers examined the likely impact of a 50-pound terrorist bomb hidden in a piece of luggage and detonated in the middle of a check-in area of a crowded terminal.

Researchers found that adding a relatively small number of skycaps, ticket agents and passenger screeners to speed check-in could cut the density of waiting passengers by 75 percent, reducing the impact of a bomb attack by a similar amount, according to the report.

“Reducing the density of the crowds in the terminal areas would make the airport less vulnerable to a luggage bomb,” Stevens said. “We found that a relatively small increase in staffing would greatly reduce the size of crowds both in terminals and waiting at the curb.”

Researchers identified several additional measures that could be adopted over the next two years to discourage terrorists from targeting LAX and limit the impact of any successful attack.

Those measures include beginning a permanent vehicle checkpoint program to identify vehicles that might be carrying a bomb, and improving the screening of cargo bound for passenger airplanes, according to the report. A vehicle screening system eventually might include scales imbedded into the roadway to quickly weigh all vehicles entering the airport, allowing officials to identify those that might be weighed down with explosives.

Researchers also suggest increased background checks and screening of airport workers to reduce the chance that an insider could be the source of a terrorist bomb or be involved in a terrorist plot.

In addition, researchers recommend improving the airport’s perimeter fencing and increasing the ability of airport security workers to respond quickly to security problems inside the airport.

In July, officials with Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX and three other airports, asked RAND to conduct a security analysis of the airport and make recommendations for short-term security improvements that could be adopted over the next two years.

RAND also will conduct a review of proposals for long-term safety improvements at LAX, including a proposal commonly called Alternative D that would create a remote check-in facility east of the airport to screen all incoming passengers. The second phase of the RAND study will begin soon and is expected to be completed in 2005.

RAND researchers worked with officials from the Los Angeles World Airports, the federal Transportation Security Administration and the LAX Police Department in preparing the report.

Other RAND researchers who contributed to the report are Terry Schell, Thomas Hamilton, Richard Mesic, Michael Brown, Edward Chan, Mel Eisman, Eric Larson, Marvin Schaffer, Bruce Newsome, John Gibson and Elwyn Harris.

The research was conducted in the Homeland Security Program of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment (ISE) unit. The ISE conducts research and analysis to improve the development, operation, use and protection of society’s essential man-made and natural assets, and to enhance the safety and security of individuals in transit, at work and in their communities.


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