The Transportation Department cracked down on United Airlines yesterday for a security breach at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in which a man carried knives and a stun gun past baggage screeners.
“I consider the O’Hare case a failure of dramatic dimensions,” Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said. “I am recommending that the FAA begin enforcement actions, which could lead to a substantial fine against United Airlines. In addition, we are requiring United Airlines to conduct a retraining of all O’Hare screeners.”
The four baggage screeners at O’Hare who allowed the man with the knives and stun gun past their security checkpoint Saturday were fired. Five others, including a supervisor, were suspended. They work for Atlanta-based Argenbreit Security Inc., the nation’s largest contractor for airline security.
Subash Gurung, a 27-year-old native of Nepal, was found to be carrying two pocket knives during a search of passengers. A second search of his baggage, after screeners already cleared his luggage through an X-ray machine, revealed additional knives, a stun gun and a spray can of Mace.
The man was arrested before he could board a flight in Omaha, Neb., and was charged with weapons violations. In a television interview, he called the incident a misunderstanding. He said he carried the knives and stun gun because he lived alone and was concerned for his safety.
United Airlines officials denied there was a threat to its passengers.
“No weapon was carried on board as a result of aggressive and effective work by United’s own employees,” said Jack Creighton, United’s chief executive officer.
He also said the airline was reviewing its security procedures to prevent further incidents.
“United has engaged outside auditors to monitor its security vendors,” Mr. Creighton said. “In addition, United will have an increased presence at O’Hare’s security checkpoints with immediate effect.”
However, Mr. Mineta was unwilling to overlook the incident.
“These failures are evidence to me that the airlines are still not making the necessary investment in security,” Mr. Mineta said. “Imagine if pilots got lost and engines wouldn’t start. The airlines would take immediate action. I want them to commit the same resources and place the same importance on the security of their passengers.”
He plans to meet with airline executives next week to reinforce his position on the importance of security following the September 11 attack on America. Last week, he announced a “zero tolerance” policy against security lapses and pledged swift action against offending airlines.
“When I say zero tolerance, that means zero tolerance,” Mr. Mineta said yesterday.