Las Vegas Sun

January 21, 2018

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Nation’s airline fleet is searched

The FBI is investigating three suspicious bags aboard two Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jets that contained box cutters and at least one note questioning the effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration, officials said today.

The discovery led to orders that every commercial aircraft in the United States undergo extra searches Thursday night and today.

Southwest Airlines officials in Las Vegas said today that the search resulted in no flight delays for the airline's 174 daily flights in and out of McCarran International Airport. The airline searched the 12 jets it routinely parks overnight at McCarran after its last flights on Thursday's schedule.

McCarran officials did not step up security this morning, saying that was the responsibility of the TSA and the airlines.

TSA officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Including Southwest's flights, McCarran has an average of 440 commercial passenger flights a day. Southwest is the largest commercial carrier serving McCarran, flying about one-third of the 35 million passengers who use the airport in a year.

Discovery of the bags led to a government order that all U.S. commercial flights be searched by security personnel within 24 hours, according to a senior law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Dallas-based Southwest issued a statement this morning explaining that suspicious bags were found in New Orleans and Houston.

A spokeswoman for the airline in Dallas said the plane in New Orleans had arrived there from Orlando, Fla. Spokeswoman Beth Harbin said once the discovery was made by New Orleans-based Southwest employees, the jet was inspected and then used for a flight from New Orleans to San Diego.

Harbin said it hasn't been determined where and when the plane in Houston last hauled passengers. The airline routinely cycles its jets through heavy maintenance every 500 days and the jet was at a maintenance base in Houston when the discovery was made.

Harbin said none of Southwest's flights systemwide were delayed as a result of government-ordered inspections.

"While performing maintenance on an aircraft lavatory in New Orleans last evening, several items were discovered in a lavatory compartment," the Southwest statement issued this morning said. "The items, inside a small plastic bag, included a small number of boxcutters and other items intended to simulate a threat.

"A similar discovery was made in Houston last night on another aircraft during a scheduled maintenance inspection.

"A note in both packages indicated the items were intended to challenge the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint security procedures.

"Both discoveries were made on Thursday night by Southwest Airlines employees. These items were immediately turned over to authorities with whom we will continue to cooperate during this investigation," the airline's statement said.

"After consulting with the TSA, we immediately completed inspections of our entire fleet of 385 aircraft and found no additional miscellaneous items. We continue to cooperate with the TSA and FBI to determine the origin of these items.

"We will not speculate on who might have left these items onboard. We will cooperate with the federal authorities to investigate this thoroughly."

In addition to the box cutters, the FBI found bleach and some form of clay, investigators said. This prompted speculation this morning that the clay could be an explosive or simulate an explosive, while the bleach could be used to disable airline personnel or passengers by someone throwing it into their eyes.

The 19 al-Qaida operatives who hijacked planes and crashed them on Sept. 11, 2001, used box cutters as weapons.

FBI spokeswoman Susan Whitson confirmed the existence of the investigation, which she said is being handled by some of the FBI's 84 joint terrorism task forces and the Department of Homeland Security.

Al-Qaida and its affiliated terrorist groups have long had an interest in using aircraft as weapons. The FBI and Homeland Security Department have issued numerous warnings about possible tactics terrorists could use, including use of small carry-on items such as cameras to blow up airplanes.

David Knowlton, special agent in charge of the Federal Air Marshals Service in Las Vegas, said his agency was alerted to the discovery of the suspicious bags aboard the planes in Houston and New Orleans about 9:30 p.m. Thursday.

He said his marshals are working with FBI agents to search commercial aircraft.

"We have found nothing locally," he said this morning. "We are making sure that these searches are done thoroughly."

Knowlton said air marshals routinely conduct searches on flights they travel on but have heightened their awareness even more in the wake of the latest discoveries.

He also urged the traveling public to pay more attention and report any unusual incidents.

If air marshals find anything, the FBI will be notified and take over the investigation. FBI airport liaison agents are expected to be at many of the country's major airports, including McCarran, over the next 24 hours in case more suspicious bags are found.

The checks will be coordinated with airlines in an attempt to limit the impact to flight schedules, federal officials said.

Las Vegas FBI spokesman Todd Palmer said the Department of Homeland Security is the lead agency for the investigation and said nothing has been found in Las Vegas.

Metro Police officers stationed at McCarran International Airport reported that everything was running as usual at the airport this morning, department spokesman Officer Jose Montoya said.

"They haven't been informed that they will be involved in any way," Montoya said. "They will be notified when federal investigators arrive, since they will need access to certain secure areas."

Jerry Bussell, homeland security adviser to Gov. Kenny Guinn, said he was unhappy that he had to learn about the incidents in Houston and New Orleans from the media.

"I certainly would have liked to have gotten a call earlier, before something like this was breaking," he said, adding he briefed the governor as soon as he got official word from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington.

Bussell said he also was told that nothing unusual has been found in any planes here, so far.

"The public should be relieved that we are making every effort to check things things out," Bussell said. "It looks like someone is trying to sent a message that airline security needs to be improved."

Bussell said he expects to get regular briefings from Washington until the searches are completed.

He said he thought that something was up last week when he received an intelligence summary from Homeland Security officials informing him that al-Qaida was still a threat.

Business at McCarran was unaffected this morning, with no unusual flight delays, airport officials confirmed.

"It's a very normal Friday morning," said McCarran spokeswoman Deborah Millett.

Jeff Randall, a passenger who arrived in Las Vegas from Houston on a Southwest flight this morning, said the flight "was perfect."

His flight arrived 25 minutes early and he was unaware of any unusual security issues.

"We got in fine," added Brian Planey, who arrived on an America West flight from Chicago.