BWI to become test ground on airport security

As bag screening law begins, reviewers watch Concourse C

New equipment put to use

January 17, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Come tomorrow, when a federal law will require airlines to screen all checked luggage across the nation, those responsible for enforcement will be watching Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

But what they will see there is anyone's guess.

For weeks, airlines and airports have been preparing for tomorrow's deadline. Yesterday, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta announced that his department chose a single concourse at BWI as the template for how luggage screening and other security measures will be handled at 429 airports.

Perhaps as early as today, federal law enforcement officials from the newly created Transportation Security Administration will begin a review of BWI's Concourse C, used mainly by Delta Air Lines, where they will test equipment and train managers, said TSA spokesman Paul Takemoto.

BWI's front-and-center role in the new security program was a closely held secret. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mineta reached the agreement on BWI on Monday, but it was not made public until the transportation secretary's announcement at noon yesterday.

"It's great," said BWI spokesman John White. "It demonstrates BWI's importance to the region."

When asked what changes passengers can expect, White offered a reminder that they should arrive no more than two hours early and reach their gates with 30 minutes to spare. Rules for curbside check-in remain unchanged, he said.

Takemoto said BWI was chosen because it is close to Washington, but he declined to say much more. "Things are more secure today than they were yesterday, and will be more secure tomorrow than they were today," he said.

If that sounds vague, so were comments by U.S. Airways' spokesman David Castelveter: "Clearly, there will be things different, but none that we can discuss, and none that our customers will notice."

Many changes at BWI since the Sept. 11 attacks have been hard to miss. The flying public navigates chronic security lines and files past rifle-toting National Guardsmen to reach gates, which are off-limits to those without tickets.

"It was almost spooky," passenger Rene Ayrault said of his experience with humorless security officials while waiting to board a flight for his native France recently. "I always thought they were light before. Now I think they're overdoing it."

Several passengers interviewed this week admitted they hadn't noticed the airport's five explosive-detection machines, each of which is about the size of a Dodge Durango and sits next to the ticket counters.

Tomorrow's deadline is part of a security overhaul that President Bush signed into law last year. The Federal Aviation Administration has approved four methods of bag screening. Airlines can use dogs to sniff out explosives, run bags through explosive detection machines, search by hand or implement bag-matching, a process in which every bag that goes onto a plane must also have its owner on board.

Only the airlines know

Because the airlines, and not the airport, are responsible for enforcing the new guidelines, BWI Executive Director Beverley Swaim-Staley said only they know for sure which methods they will use.

"The airlines are telling us that they are prepared and that they do not expect it to be a problem," she said. "They expect it to be invisible to most customers."

Swaim-Staley and her staff were hoping that at least one airline representative would join her at a press conference today to discuss the changes. But the two airlines that they approached declined, citing concerns about divulging security practices. BWI staff canceled the conference.

The director said she understands those concerns. "The FAA makes it very clear to us in meetings that when you talk about security measures, be careful," she said.

Airport officials appear to be adopting that strategy as well. Yesterday, the Maryland Aviation Commission, which oversees the airport, met for nearly two hours in a closed session. The public portion of the meeting lasted just 15 minutes, during which time the commissioners discussed airport parking and passenger traffic.

Though the meeting ended 15 minutes before Mineta's announcement, Swaim-Staley didn't mention BWI's new role when asked what changes passengers could expect to see at the airport.

Mineta initially said the airlines could not meet the deadline tomorrow for screening all checked luggage, but yesterday said he would do everything possible to meet the timetable.

No matter which methods the airlines use, the task is daunting.

BWI has four dog teams, which can sniff out banned substances. But the dogs tire easily, which exacerbates the long lines. Hand searches, too, are time-consuming and often irritate passengers.

Bag matching, already common on international flights, is invisible to passengers and is the method BWI and many other airports will rely on most. But bag matching has three drawbacks: It won't stop a suicide bomber, it won't be required on connecting flights, and it could lead to delays at gates.

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