Florida, Puerto Rico Airports Boosting Security after Gun-Smuggling Arrests

ORLANDO, Florida_Federal officials are temporarily beefing up security at four Florida airports and one in Puerto Rico after baggage handlers were accused of smuggling guns aboard a commercial airliner last week, authorities said Tuesday.

More than 160 security officers, aviation inspectors, federal air marshals and others were being dispatched to international airports in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The officers will be in place for a few days before rotating to other airports.

Authorities found handguns and an assault rifle on board a flight from Orlando to San Juan.

Orlando airport officials want to make the increased security permanent, TSA spokesman Earl Morris said, adding the full employee screening is now planned for only a "couple of days."

Orlando could be just the second U.S. airport to implement physical screening for employees, after Miami began the practice in 1999 following its own smuggling incident. Other airports rely on background checks before people are hired and random physical searches, both self-conducted and those done by TSA.

Orlando airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell called the screenings a first step, but said officials still weren't sure what else they'd do or when.

"We will have to look at our budget and find the money," she said. "It may mean we will not do some projects that are planned or previously budgeted for. It is very important that we have confidence in the systems here."

The TSA was criticized last week after law enforcement officials made four arrests in connection with a drug-smuggling ring that bypassed Orlando airport security to send guns and drugs to Puerto Rico.

Two airline baggage handlers allegedly used their employee uniforms and airport identification cards to enter restricted areas and avoid security screeners.

TSA officials called the increased presence at Florida airports a "security surge," focusing on employees with access to sensitive areas, such as baggage handlers and mechanics.

"More surges are planned, but we won't obviously announce where and when," TSA spokesman Christopher White said.

In the short term, the influx of federal agents will help screen Orlando's airport work force, officials said. Beyond that, the airport must either hire its own extra screeners or receive special approval from the federal government for TSA officers to conduct it.

"We are looking at our resources to see if we can keep our officers here longer," TSA spokesman Earl Morris said. "We have to evaluate the potential impact to the other 451 airports that TSA supports."

Miami International Airport spokesman Marc Henderson said the Miami airport started screening employees in 1999 after a drug smuggling there. He said an estimated 7,400 of the 35,000 employees on property pass through checkpoints everyday to reach the airfield. The employee searches are handled by private contractors.

Fennell said she could not estimate how many of the Orlando airport's 16,000 employees would be screened.

<<Associated Press WorldStream -- 03/15/07>>

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