'Chat-downs' latest 'first' in security at Logan since 9/11

BOSTON -- Ed Freni looked out a window of his office on the 18th floor at Logan International Airport on a recent sunny day to point out the American flag posted above gate B-32.

That's where American Airlines Flight 11 departed a decade earlier. To the left, another flag hangs above gate C-19, where United Airlines Flight 175 departed.

Those are the two planes that struck the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. "It was a day just like this," says Freni, Logan's aviation director.

For the past decade, Freni has worked to make sure there isn't another day like it.

The changes at Logan began the morning after the attacks, when airport staffers, state police, airline officials, federal air marshals, FBI agents and immigration and customs officials began a daily 8:30 a.m. meeting. The meeting bulges to 75 to 100 people, but briskly runs through intelligence and strategies for the next 24 hours.

Within weeks, the airport hired experts including Rafi Ron, the former security director at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel, to improve security. Ron began training state police and other staffers to spot suspicious behavior — and report it.

By the end of 2002, Logan became the first airport to X-ray every piece of checked luggage for explosives. Rather than wait for federal funding, the airport's governing board plunged ahead and fronted the cost of $140 million, of which the federal government reimbursed about three-quarters, and the workers ran seven days a week until finished.

Logan also became the first airport to deploy full-body scanners, called advanced imaging technology, on March 8, 2010. The machines detect non-metallic weapons such as explosives that can be hidden beneath a person's clothing.

The airport's latest "first" on the security front is to serve as the host to a Transportation Security Administration experiment nicknamed "chat-downs." The experiment, in which TSA officers try to tease out clues to suspicious or deceptive behavior from travelers before they go through metal detectors. The program is still being tweaked, but could be expanded nationwide.

"We have told TSA that if you want to use us as a laboratory, bring it here," Freni said.

Logan is commonly recognized for its cutting-edge security. TSA Administrator John Pistole visited Logan in July 2010 on his first official trip outside Washington after his confirmation because of its reputation as one of the best, most secure airports in the country.

"This airport has led the nation in new techniques and innovative methods to prevent another 9/11 attack," says Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who headed a hearing at Logan about security measures Sept. 16.

The work remains personal for many at Logan. Freni had worked for American Airlines for 24 years before joining Logan, so he knew three of the flight attendants and the pilot aboard the doomed flight 11.

"Our mantra is, this will never happen again," Freni says. "We'd all like to put it behind us, but we can't — we keep pushing, strategizing."