BWI and other airports go under heavy security So carry a photo I.D., or expect to have every bag searched

October 14, 1995|By SUZANNE WOOTON | SUZANNE WOOTON,SUN STAFF

No longer can you leave your car unattended while dropping off a passenger at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- even for a minute. Or drift away from your luggage.

If you show up for your flight without a photo I.D., be prepared to have every piece of baggage searched. And if you drive a large vehicle, like a minivan or truck, you'll be asked to open the trunk or storage area before entering the airport's parking garage.

For the first time since the Persian Gulf war, a nationwide order by the Federal Aviation Administration has triggered such stringent security measures at the nation's 5,400 airports.

"The FAA has increased its security before, but not at the level today," said Capt. Curtis Noel, commanding officer of the Maryland Transportation Authority's police force at BWI.

Federal authorities say the move was not prompted by any one event -- the recent conviction of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman in New York, Pope John Paul II's visit to the United States, the Middle East peace accord or the 50th anniversary of the United Nations -- or by any threats.

"There has been no specific threat to aviation. These measures went in to make sure it stays that way," Liz Neblett, a spokeswoman for the FAA in Washington, said yesterday.

The move, she said, stems from a continuing assessment about airport security by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Throughout the country, airline reservation clerks are warning passengers, when they book their flights, about the increased security measures.

At BWI, where 31,000 passengers travel daily, K-9 squads, stationed at the airport with Maryland State Police, have been called in more than a dozen times a day to sniff unattended bags as well as cars left even briefly outside the main terminal.

"We used to give them five or 10 minutes to get back to their car," said airport police Sgt. Tom Morris. "But they don't get that anymore. We just keep everybody moving."

A passenger is paged whenever possible, but if a search of the car has been started by the time he returns, it must be completed, BWI police said.

Ticketed passengers older than 18 are required to show photo identification when checking their baggage at curbside or at the airlines' ticket counters. Airline workers are quizzing passengers about their luggage.

"We're asking customers to verify that they packed their bags and what the contents are," said David Kissman, the BWI station manager for Southwest Airlines.

"We're also asking if anyone has approached them about carrying a bag on board."

In several instances, when a passenger has been unable to produce any identification, Southwest workers have searched luggage before allowing him to board.

"We've had to check the baggage item by item," Mr. Kissman said.

A passenger with a ticket purchased with cash gets close scrutiny. His luggage is not loaded onto the plane until gate attendants verify that the passenger has boarded.

Unlike tickets purchased with credit cards, those bought with cash provide no way for the purchaser to be tracked.

For BWI, the increased security -- including more officers patrolling the perimeter of the 3,300-acre airport -- has produced nothing unusual thus far, authorities say. Likewise, Ms. Neblett at the FAA said no serious incidents have been reported elsewhere.

While the intensified security measures have slowed check-ins and created longer lines, many passengers seem unperturbed and indeed welcomed the precautions.

"It makes me feel better, actually," said Vera Crisp, a Virginia Beach, Va., resident who was flying to Nashville, Tenn., from BWI yesterday with her husband, Tad. "I've heard it's because of terrorist activity, so the more scrutiny the better."

Persons without tickets are still permitted in the gate areas, provided they go through the baggage X-ray check area.

The increased security measures have evolved since August, when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena announced heightened state of alert for the nation's transportation systems."

Around the nation, some airports in the New York area began inspecting vehicles or asking passengers about the contents of their luggage shortly after Mr. Pena's announcement.

Standard FAA-imposed security measures, such as X-ray luggage inspection, have long been in place for all airports. But the FAA, which oversees all of the nation's airports and maintains control towers at more than 400, has the authority at any time to require airports and carriers to implement tougher measures.

The agency has not indicated when, or if, the new measures will be removed.

"When we feel these are no longer needed, they will be stopped," Ms. Neblett said.

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