Bag Sets Off Bomb Detector At Hopkins Airport

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - A screening machine detected explosives in a carry-on bag at a security checkpoint at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on Friday, and authorities closed two concourses for 2 1/2 hours, officials said.

Airport Commissioner Fred Szabo said screeners were unable to find the bag and he could not rule out the possibility that the bag and the person carrying it got on a departing flight before the concourses were closed.

He said there was no way of knowing whether there was an explosive in the bag or whether it was a false alarm. The machines frequently return false readings, he said.

"We don't have any indication that there was actually an explosive device, but we don't know for sure," he said.

Szabo said the carry-on bag set off an alarm at concourse C, but the alarm was undetected initially by a screener. By the time a second security person noticed that the alarm had gone off, the luggage and the passenger carrying it were out of sight, he said.

"I don't know if it was a minute or 10 minutes," he said.

He said the airport shut down concourses C and D, which uses the same security checkpoint as C, and emptied 14 Continental Airlines planes that were docked at the gates.

Continental spokeswoman Julie King said some incoming flights were diverted to another terminal.

Huntleigh International of St. Louis runs the security at the concourse, Szabo said. The company declined comment.

The airport, like other airports across the country, is making the transition to having federal workers take over screening from companies that have managed the checkpoints.

"Private security companies do not provide the service that the federal government would be able to," Szabo said. "We're still in the middle of that transition."

Tony Molinaro, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said screening at the checkpoint wasn't done properly.

"If there's any improper screening, and they feel they need to secure the concourse, they will evacuate and do a sweep," he said.

Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney and former inspector general at the Department of Transportation, said it is not uncommon for inspectors to miss warnings.

"We found that a lot. People could just zone off -- their eyes would be on the screen, but they just didn't see it. They just sort of stare into space," she said.

False positives are also a major problem. "People got so used to the alerts being false alerts that they just stopped paying attention to them," she said.

The concourses were evacuated about 10:30 a.m. and reopened after 1 p.m., Szabo said.

Despite the breach, passengers at the airport said it would not keep them from flying.

"It's probably for our own safety that they did this," Steve Mikolay of nearby Euclid said while standing in a long line to be rescreened for a flight to Las Vegas. "But I'm very unhappy because I'm losing a day out there."

Celia Hoyer of Boston, on board a fight bound for Boston when the flight was unloaded, said airport safety rules are sufficient to protect passengers.

"I don't really know what it was, so it's hard to tell whether we should be concerned," she said.

Last October, two concourses at the airport were closed for 3 1/2 hours when a security device gave what turned out to be a false reading indicating explosives in a carry-on bag. No explosives were found.

More than 13 million passengers passed through Hopkins in 2000, making it the nation's 33rd busiest airport. That year, there were 332,000 landings and takeoffs.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)