New L.A. Litigator Sees Cause for Airport Insecurity

Staff Reporter

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has been an outspoken critic of the Federal Aviation Administration for its failure to adequately address security concerns at the nation's airports.

Named partner at L.A.-based Baum Hedlund Aristei Guilford & Schiavo, a law firm that represents victims of aviation disasters, the Ohio native plans to move to L.A. within a month. She has begun working with families of those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Schiavo published a book, "Flying Blind, Flying Safe," about her experiences working with the FAA.

Question: You're familiar with practically every major airport in the country. How does LAX compare to others in terms of security?

Answer: I haven't noticed a big change at LAX because they had a previous scare. Because L.A. had been the target of a plot, some of this (security) was accomplished.

But it's extremely vulnerable. It's No. 1 on the target list and needs tremendous help. It's an old airport, and it's got the problem of all older airports: the facilities are widely spread out. Because there are so many points of access, there is no one funnel through which most people go. Wherever passengers and baggage go, there's a threat vector, where something can get into the airport. With modern airports, you have a central point, and the system is supposedly secure.

Q: So what can LAX do?

A: LAX has done some things, but to make other changes will take a massive reconstruction. And airports like LAX are in landlocked areas. There aren't many places to expand into. Every place you have baggage will to have be remodeled and reconstructed to accommodate x-ray machines and close detection equipment.

Old airports don't have a choice. They have to overhaul baggage areas. They don't have places in baggage areas to install this equipment, which are automatic and big. They're not little units. To put in x-ray machines, you have to accommodate with inter-connected conveyer belts.

Q: Is L.A. more vulnerable than other cities?

A: I don't think L.A. is any more vulnerable. I get the best information from reporters, and one reporter friend of mine ran a credit check on the hijackers who died Sept. 11, checking to see who did business with them. He found out where all their base of operations were, and there weren't a lot in L.A. That's just this terrorist outfit, however. Because of the sheer volume of attention to L.A. and New York, LAX is a huge risk because it's a huge prize.

Q: How safe are the smaller passenger airports, like Burbank and Ontario?

A: It matters how many people have to check through the airport security area. With smaller airports, it's easier to get done because you know the community. But enforcement wise, does the FAA pay attention to these smaller airports? No. It has not done spot checks. It's pretty hard to compare because they don't receive the same kind of scrutiny and attention from the FAA, but then they haven't been a launching spot for terrorism either.

Q: What's your view of the new federal mandate for security checks on all baggage and how effective will it be?

A: The baggage checking requirement is a big improvement because right now no one knows what's on a plane. Right now anyone can check anything. But the airlines will absolutely not do it. The feds will excuse them and they'll get extensions. The FAA and the Transportation Department have already asked for extensions. We're watching them already losing the will and now saying they (the terrorists) won't use the same mode of transportation. Quite frankly it will probably take another terrorist attack.

Q: How does your experience at the Department of Transportation help you as a trial attorney in aviation disasters?

A: Part of the thing I love is the investigating. I like the who-done-it. I'm familiar with the documents, I've already been doing that investigating work and piecing together what works and what doesn't.

Q: Is it safe to fly?

A: It's safer now than before Sept. 11 because people are paying attention to the job. No matter how many machines you have, it was the human element that failed. You'd put them in airports and they'd sit there. I've been in and out of O'Hare 10 times since Sept. 11 and one time I stood in line for an hour. There were two CTS systems, which detect explosive devices. No one used them in that hour. The security people were just chatting with each other while the machines sat idle.

Q: Are you afraid to fly?

A: Sure. And since Sept. 11, I've been on 50 flights. But it's my job. And I go out and I do it, but I'm concerned. I haven't had my kids fly a lot. I'm particularly concerned because the next vulnerability won't be the same as the last. If aviation is still their target, they're planning something else. And unfortunately, the government responds to the last attack. They're responding to 9/11, and the criminals are busy planning something else.

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