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Failing the test

If the federal Transportation Security Administration were to grade itself on Tuesday's security "test" at the Birmingham Airport, it should give itself an "F."

The test resulted in the airport being shut down for two hours as authorities searched for four people whom airport officials thought had breached security by being in unauthorized areas. Both arriving and departing flights were delayed, some passengers were forced to disembark planes and many other anxious travelers were left in the dark about what was happening, including Mayor Bernard Kincaid and other city officials returning from a National League of Cities convention in Washington, D.C.

Worse, airport officials and Birmingham police apparently were uninformed about the security test and had to scramble, not knowing whether a real security threat existed.

Wednesday brought word that the four suspicious persons three men and one woman encountered by airport workers on the tarmac under two concourses were TSA employees.

The federal agency, formed to beef up security following the 2001 terrorist attacks, admitted it goofed.

TSA officials said they should have told airport officials, as required, of the inspection. They couldn't explain why that didn't happen. There also was no explanation of why it took so long to clear up the confusion.

After 9/11 and with the nation on the verge of war with Iraq, heightened airport security is a must. So, too, are occasional exercises to make sure airport employees and law enforcement agencies know what to do in the case of an emergency.

But to lock down the airport for a full two hours during a busy time of the day, with planes waiting to land forced to circle the airport instead, was a major foul-up. (What were the inspectors doing while the airport was locked down and police, FBI and airport security personnel conducted their search?)

It's hard to look at what happened Tuesday and not conclude that a lot of people were needlessly scared and inconvenienced. That's not the way to make them feel more secure about flying.

At least TSA officials said airport officials acted appropriately in the security scare. "Our aviation operations people tell us they the airport rated quite highly," said a TSA spokesman.

Too bad the federal agency responsible for airport security didn't rate so highly.

The Birmingham News

March 14, 2003