LOS ANGELES - Federal inspectors who uncovered lapses in airport security over the last decade proposed fines in just one-quarter of the cases, a record critics say underscores weaknesses in oversight of the system that protects the nation's air travelers.
When the Federal Aviation Administration did move to fine airlines or airports, it sought a total of just $28.5 million over the decade - less than a major airline spends for a week's worth of jet fuel. And those proposed fines often are reduced substantially in negotiations.
Critics say the fines provide little incentive to the airlines to tighten security.
''It's cheaper to pay the fines, because they're negotiable, than to pay for the corrective measures that would eliminate the need for fines,'' said Charles Slepian, a New York attorney who specializes in aviation cases.
While it has not been determined that lax screening played any role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the deadly hijackings have focused the attention of the nation and Congress once again on the state of security at the nation's airports.
An Associated Press analysis of thousands of FAA enforcement records from 1990 through 2000 found that, in most security breaches, the private companies responsible for the safety of the flying public got written warnings rather than fines.
Until the attacks, the sanctions were considered effective, FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said.
''Now, things definitely have changed,'' Takemoto said from Washington, D.C. ''This is not the same environment we had before.''
Takemoto and other FAA officials refused to discuss the enforcement statistics in detail or release the actual amount collected when fines were imposed, citing security concerns.
Over the decade, a period when air travel increased 43 percent to 666 million passengers per year, the FAA logged more than 19,500 lapses in passenger screening and terminal security, but proposed fines in only 26 percent of the cases.
The lapses ranged from record-keeping violations to letting passengers check in without answering required questions about their baggage to failing to detect weapons hidden in carry-on bags by government inspectors.
Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee's subcommittee on aviation, defended the FAA's enforcement record. He noted that until the terrorist attacks, no one had attempted to hijack an airliner in the United States since 1991.
''For the most part, the system - even with all its failings - has worked for the last decade,'' Mica said.
When the government ordered passenger screening in 1973 after a spate of hijackings, it gave responsibility to the airlines, which typically contract the job out to security companies. Now the airlines - which won $15 billion in emergency federal aid last week - are using congressional hearings to repeat previous calls for the government to take over.
Historically, the screeners hired by the airlines failed to detect 20 percent of dangerous objects hidden in baggage by inspectors, according to a report last year by the General Accounting Office.
In one headline-grabbing lapse, screeners failed to detect a 6-inch hunting knife toted by an Alaska Airlines passenger on a San Francisco-Seattle flight until the man took off his shirt and socks and began cleaning his nails with it.
When the FAA does propose fines, they're often reduced substantially in negotiations.
For example, when an undercover FAA agent managed to walk into a secure area of Detroit Metropolitan Airport in January 1998, the agency proposed an $11,000 fine. The complaint was settled for $6,000.
In August 1997, Northwest Airlines flew the checked bag of a federal aviation agent on a flight from Detroit to Toronto, though the agent wasn't on that flight or any other headed to Toronto. Northwest was fined $7,500, but settled the complaint for $5,000.
Billie Vincent, former director of the FAA's office of civil aviation security, said travelers would be better served if the agency took a harder line on fines.
''The FAA, while it should be a regulatory agency, frequently ends up being what's called a 'coaching and counseling group,''' Vincent said.
The AP examined records of the FAA's Enforcement Information System covering all reported cases of enforcement actions by the agency at airports from 1990 through 2000. Most enforcement actions resulted from inspections or surveillance by the FAA, while some originated with local law enforcement agencies.
-The FAA logged 19,532 enforcement actions against airlines and airports for alleged violations of federal aviation safety rules and procedures. Ten percent, or 2,026, involved weapons - the majority of them weapons and explosives hidden in bags by FAA inspectors to test the system.
-Fines were proposed most often for failing to comply with FAA security directives, general screening lapses and unauthorized access to secure areas.
-The FAA also logged 28,360 security violations by passengers and other individuals in airports during the same period.
While the records show lapses in the system, they don't allow an overall assessment of how effective the screening really is. For example, there's no way to count weapons that passengers actually slipped through.
Computer analysis by AP's Frank Bass in New York.