A long line of defense

Security: A new federal law requiring airports to search luggage for explosives increases travelers' safety -- and their waiting time.

January 19, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Except for a little confusion and a few more lines, the first day of screening every piece of checked luggage at Baltimore-Washington International Airport proceeded like most other days.

Some passengers weren't aware of the federal law that went into effect yesterday requiring more thorough baggage inspections. But they adapted quickly as security officials directed them to place their checked luggage on van-sized explosive-detection machines next to the ticket counter.

No traveler was immune to questions, no object impervious to scrutiny.

Faye Peachey, a 63-year-old Mennonite woman wearing a long dress and a neatly pinned bonnet, was visiting the area from Alberta, Canada. She and her husband, Jesse, were delivering some American goodies to their daughter, a missionary in Romania. For the trip, she'd packed oatmeal and powdered sugar in plastic bags and zipped her Bible into a dense, black case.

"I didn't think it would cause any trouble," Peachey said as security screeners Shannon Slocumb and Joannie Johnson looked at her Bible.

But the strange, dense item the scanning machine flagged wasn't the well-packed Scriptures. Upon closer examination - three more scans under the machine - Johnson found the offending object. It was a block of cheddar cheese, which Peachey's daughter had requested.

Johnson rewrapped the cheese and sent the Peacheys on their way.

When they left, Johnson admitted, "The cheese did throw it off today."

Other passengers seemed thrown off by the new system, which airlines have been prepared for since President Bush signed the aviation security legislation in November. 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. BWI has five explosive-detection machines.

Airlines are reluctant to comment on security matters, and will give few details about how passengers will pass through security.

But on BWI's Concourse C, which the newly created Transportation Security Administration is studying as a model for the rest of the nation's airports, the process works like this:

Travelers wait in line at a ticket counter with their identification handy. After they check in, the ticket agent directs them to wait in another line for their bag to be screened though the explosive-detection machine. The agent gives the passenger's boarding pass to the security agent, who holds on to it until the bag passes through the machine. When passenger and luggage are reunited, the bag gets a "security clearance" ticket and the traveler gets the boarding pass back.

Although some complained the process took more than an hour yesterday, most seemed to wait about 20 minutes during the airport's morning rush.

John Jones, security manager of Globe Aviation Services Corp., declared the operation a success as he watched Johnson and her colleagues operate.

"I think it's going very well," he said, adding: "The traveling public is very accepting of the changes. It's an evolutionary process, and most of them understand that."

Jim McLoughlin was willing to forgive the nascent operation when he had to leave the bag-screening line and return to the ticket counter because the security agents questioned the handwritten tag indicating his luggage was bound for Atlanta. Someone from the ticket counter had to explain to the security team that they had temporarily run out of the printed tags.

"I'm stressed," the 38-year-old Columbia resident declared, looking at his watch. He had arrived at 5:45 a.m., but at 6:55 a.m. he was still in the checked baggage line. His flight was scheduled to leave at 7:05. It, too, was delayed.

Good thing, because McLoughlin had at least a 20-minute wait ahead of him in the security checkpoint line before he could reach the gate. A guard with a bullhorn was urging those in line to take off their shoes so the process would move quickly.

At 7:20 a.m., Stephen W. Earnhart was the last in that security checkpoint line, and was none too happy about it. Unshaven, exhausted and frustrated to be spending yet another day standing next to an airport fast-food joint, he rolled his eyes in disgust.

"This is obscene," he said. "Have you ever seen a line like this?"

Earnhart, who owns a Dallas-based health care consulting firm, has flown dozens of times since the attacks Sept. 11. This week alone, he says, he's traveled to Alaska, Boston, Atlanta, Tampa and Baltimore. But he has started cutting back on his flying because, he said, he waits in lines at least 10 hours a week.

Earnhart flies through BWI three times a month. He hoped the airport's lines would improve after federal authorities announced this week that they were studying security there as a template for how it should be handled nationwide.

"If this is the standard for the rest of the county," he said, "then the airlines can kiss their butts goodbye."

At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where lines were short and passengers reported few changes, Julie Flinn remembered recent long waits at BWI since Sept. 11 and was glad she had picked another airport.

But even with the short lines, the defense analyst missed her flight. And, like Earnhart, she worried the new measures could steer her and others away from air travel. "If it takes me five hours to fly to New York with all the security measures and it costs $250 with all the fees," Flinn said, "I might just rent a car and drive."

Contributing writer Magin McKenna contributed to this article.

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