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Attacks shook borough airports

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The National Guardsmen may be gone from the borough’s airports, but the terminals are still a much different place than they were last summer.

As ridership slowly returns to normal levels after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Transportation Security Administration and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are tightening security measures at John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports.

According to the agencies, federal employees who have met stricter standards are replacing baggage screeners, explosive detection equipment is scheduled to check luggage by the end of the year, and criminal background checks could be required for most airport employees by the fall.

Both JFK and LaGuardia were closed for three days after the attacks last year, leaving thousands of travelers stranded, including some who had been in town for the U.S. Open, which ended two days earlier. Both airports’ terminals were shut down, forcing the passengers to wait outside for information on their flights or seek rooms in the borough’s hotels.

The Queens airports opened for a few hours Thursday, Sept. 13, but closed again when 10 people were arrested for making bomb threats at both Kennedy and LaGuardia. Both reopened the next day.

The Federal Aviation Administration was considering limiting types of flights on Sept. 11 this year by creating a no-fly zone within a 30-mile radius of New York City. The restrictions would have prohibited general aviation, charter and foreign flights from coming in or out of the air space over New York, but the idea was rejected a day after it was proposed.

Ridership has been increasing steadily since the beginning of the year, with 48.5 million people flying in May nationwide, said Greg Warren, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration. Air travel numbers for the year peaked at 50 million passengers in March, he said.

National Guardsmen were assigned to JFK and LaGuardia in October, but the troops were removed early this summer after federal employees began taking over for baggage screeners in May.

The new screeners, who are now required to be U.S. citizens, speak English and have a high school or general equivalency diploma, are in place at the Queens airports.

Three of Kennedy’s eight terminals – 6, 7, and 8 – are staffed with the new screeners, and LaGuardia has one terminal staffed, Warren said. The other terminals must be staffed with screeners who meet the new requirements by Nov. 19, he said.

“We are working hard to make the deadlines to have the federal passenger screeners in the airports,” Warren said.

The new screeners must also pass aptitude and physical dexterity tests as well as a criminal background check, he said.

The TSA is being held to a Dec. 31 deadline requiring that explosive detection equipment be deployed so Kennedy and LaGuardia have sufficient systems to screen all checked baggage for explosive devices. If explosive detection equipment is unavailable at commercial airports, then all checked baggage must be screened by an alternate method.

Despite claims from Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that the deadline is too strict, Warren said the TSA is “on pace” to meet it.

Gov. George Pataki is pushing legislation that would extend criminal background checks to all airport employees who have access to secure areas of the airport, meaning all spaces beyond the security checkpoints.

The legislation, which applies to retailers, food vendors and custodians at both Kennedy and LaGuardia, would surpass the federal statute, and was passed by the state Senate, but was awaiting approval from the Assembly in August. The system, which could be in place later this fall, would rely on a fingerprint identification system.

“This legislation will help to ensure any person who is working in a sensitive area at one of our airports does not have a criminal history,” Pataki said in a statement urging the state Assembly to take action last month. “The legislation mandates fingerprint-based criminal history background checks for any worker who is assigned to any ‘sterile’ area at Kennedy or LaGuardia airports as a condition of employment.”

And the borough is still reeling from the job losses that occurred at the airports as a result of decreased travel after Sept. 11. About 12,500 jobs were lost, according to a survey by the Queens County Overall Economic Development Corp. issued in July. Before the attacks, the airports employed about 41,500 workers in Queens, or about 8.6 percent of the county’s total work force.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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