WASHINGTON -- Airlines failed to enforce existing security guidelines on Sept. 11 that required airport screeners to confiscate box cutters from passengers, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Government rules did not specifically bar the objects before last year's the attacks, but the airlines were in charge of security then, with the Federal Aviation Administration overseeing their performance. The airlines issued a manual in 1994 that listed for screeners items passengers could not carry past airport checkpoints.
The AP obtained a copy of the document, which included box cutters such as those purportedly used by the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers.
"If they knew these were problems, why weren't they more responsible in protecting the public?" asked former FAA security chief Billie Vincent.
The Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, and the Regional Airline Association, the trade group for smaller carriers, issued the Checkpoint Operations Guide to implement Federal Aviation Administration security regulations.
ATA spokesman Michael Wascom said only: "Box cutters were not prohibited by the FAA on 9-11-01," and refused to comment further. Officials of the regional airlines' group would not comment.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said keeping box cutters off planes was an industry requirement, not a government order. She said the FAA allowed airline passengers to carry blades less than four inches long before Sept. 11. Government rules now prohibit such items.
The manual for security screeners was issued by the airlines' trade groups to comply with FAA regulations and was in effect at the time of the terror attacks. The document lists box cutters and pepper spray as items not allowed past security checkpoints. Screeners were told to call supervisors if either item were to be found.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has said some of the hijackers used box cutters to take over the planes, and the indictment of alleged hijacking co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui charged that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the hijackers, had pepper spray.
Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of an annual study on airline quality, said airlines didn't want to invest the time or money before Sept. 11 to check passengers thoroughly.
"Security was mostly a nonstarter for most people," he said. "The airlines, knowing it would cost them a bundle to make a bigger deal out of that, didn't want to spend the money."
After the attacks Congress took responsibility for airline security from the FAA and the airlines and gave it to a new Transportation Security Administration. The TSA has until Nov. 19 to replace private airport screeners with an all-government work force.
Former FAA chief counsel Kenneth Quinn, now a lawyer representing several airport security companies, said that before Sept. 11, the agency, not the industry, had the ultimate responsibility for what got onto planes.
"There's only one way to prohibit items from being carried on board airplanes, and that is through mandatory security directives from the FAA," Quinn said. "Relying on trade association advisory materials is an inherently suspect and deficient way to ensure an important safety and security task."
Former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo, now a lawyer suing United Airlines and American Airlines on behalf of families of Sept. 11 victims, said the document shows there were regulations in place that might have thwarted the hijackings.
"What's disappointing to me is a lot of effort has gone into our government and others bending over backward saying no one did anything wrong, but it's clear they didn't follow the guidelines that were in place at the time," Schiavo said.
Brown said that since the manual was not an FAA document, failure to follow its procedures did not violate agency regulations.
Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation, said the FAA should have had more stringent screening standards in place.
"The whole security process was in disarray," said Mica, R-Fla. "When you don't have the personnel with any standards, and you don't have FAA adopting specific rules, you have no one to enforce it."
On the Net: Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
Air Transport Association: http://www.airlines.org