'Shoe Bomber' Case Illustrates Ongoing Problems in Airport Security

ByLisa Stark

Dec. 24, 2001 -- As U.S. and French officials scrambled to tighten airport security, investigations continue into how Richard Reid managed to get on American Airlines Flight 63.

In a taped hotline message to company employees, American Airlines CEO Don Carty today defended what happened.

"Our employees in Paris DeGaulle airport were the first to sense something suspicious about the passenger," Carty said, adding that airline workers were concerned about the authenticity of Reid's passport.

"Our people brought the passenger to the attention of French authorities, and it was only after those authorities cleared him, that he was allowed to board the flight on Saturday," Carty said.

Reid allegedly tried to ignite a bomb hidden in his shoes aboard the American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami on Saturday. The plane was rerouted to Boston's Logan Airport, where Reid was arrested.

According to French authorities and U.S. aviation sources, Reid first tried to get on the flight to Miami on Friday but missed the plane because of extensive questioning by airline employees and French police.

American Airlines employees were suspicious, not only because of Reid's passport, but also because he paid for a one-way ticket in cash, and had no checked luggage, sources said. French authorities ultimately cleared Reid, but by then the flight had left.

Random Search of Shoes

Reid spent Friday night at a nearby hotel. According to French TV, American Airlines paid for his hotel room.

When he came back to the airport Saturday, sources said he was again singled out as a suspicious passenger. According to U.S. sources, Reid's carry-on bag was hand-checked and security used a wand to swipe him, looking for any metal or weapons but found nothing. Reid was cleared to get on the plane.

Officials at Charles DeGaulle Airport said they have increased security measures, and are using more dog teams to sniff for explosives.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has ordered additional security checks, including random checks of shoes. Some passengers were being asked to remove shows for closer scrutiny. At George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, shoes were patted down, or swiped by a device that detects traces of explosives.

Passengers did not seem to mind. "I would take off my clothes if I have to," one passenger said.

Sign of Ongoing Security Holes

Aviation security experts said Saturday's alleged incident shows continued holes in the system. "Currently there is no technology widely deployed at airports around the world to detect explosives on people," said Larry Johnson, a terrorism analyst.

Many security experts believe that one big hole in the system is the scrutiny of checked luggage.

As of mid-January, airlines and airports are supposed to screen all checked luggage for explosives. The secretary of transportation has previously said he doesn't think they'll meet that deadline, but the government and airlines are under intense public pressure to do so.

And then, there's the human element. "If an individual is willing to give up his life … then those are extraordinarily difficult to thwart," said Brian Jenkins, part of an aviation security task force formed after the crash of TWA 800. "A clever adversary is always going to find some vulnerability."