A model of airport security at BWI

Prototype checkpoint shows how to speed thorough screening

April 04, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

After two months of studies and testing, the Transportation Security Administration unveiled yesterday a model system it says will more thoroughly screen air passengers while moving them faster through security checkpoints in airports across the country.

The system developed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport alters everything from the formation of passenger lines to the design of the plastic containers that carry laptop computers, cell phones and keys through scanners. Colorful electronic message boards offer travelers tips to save time. And anyone singled out for extra scrutiny is immediately moved to a separate "wanding" area to avoid delaying those in line.

If someone tries to bolt for the gates, electronic doors can seal the new checkpoint, perhaps pre-empting the need to evacuate.

"These are off-the-shelf solutions that when combined get big results," said Hans Miller, the top security administration official at BWI. "It comes down to working the details."

That is what a team of specialists has been doing daily at BWI's Pier C since early February. Team members, including private consultants such as Kurt Krause of Marriott Corp., brainstormed, experimented, failed, refined and are now enjoying some success.

When they began, the maximum wait at the busiest time was about 20 minutes. Today, that has dropped to 12 to 15 minutes, and most travelers clear the checkpoint in less than 10 minutes - which was the team's goal. The system will be copied at the airport's other piers by summer.

In two days of training at BWI this week, new airport security directors and managers learned how the system works. In the next few months, they will begin installing similar checkpoints at more than a dozen major airports which, along with BWI, are part of a security study by the agency.

"We need to prove these concepts will be effective there," Miller said.

Passenger Cal Greene, who flew out of BWI yesterday morning on a business trip to Detroit, needed little convincing.

The New Jersey-based architect, who designs retail areas for airports, said his trip through Pier C security was fast and efficient. Because he was chosen for a random search, he said it took a little longer than usual - about 10 minutes.

`Polite, pretty expeditious'

"BWI had problems at first, but they're doing an admirable job of getting it together, paring the lines down, getting knowledgeable people in place and managing traffic," said Greene, who flies at least once a week. "Everybody was polite and pretty expeditious."

The changes are apparent even from a distance. Two months ago, long lines of passengers extended from the checkpoint into the concourse, often putting departing travelers on a collision course with arrivals and the friends and relatives there to meet them.

Today, the checkpoint lines make better use of space. Defined by roped dividers, they wind serpentine-like in the sort of switchback formation not uncommon at amusement parks.

"Our favorite comment was from someone who said, `This is just like Disneyland,'" Miller said.

It's the sort of consumer-friendly approach the agency is striving to master.

While travelers wait, large colorful signs and flat-screen electronic monitors offer advice that is adding up to big time savings. Because passengers often slow the process by fumbling with laptops, cell phones, coats, coins and jewelry near the checkpoint, they are urged to put small objects in their carryon bag, and have computers and coats ready. This means fewer alarms at the metal detector, which these days automatically call for an electronic wand search, and sometimes a pat down.

Many of those alarms are avoidable, said David Foster, a program analyst for the security administration. "We want to spend our time on the passengers who are a threat."

To guide the inexperienced or hesitant traveler and to make sure each scanner gets an equal share of the workload, a line monitor helps as a sort of congenial traffic cop.

"Make sure you guys empty your pockets - keys, coins, any kind of metal," a woman in that job shouted to those in line yesterday morning.

New bins for laptops

As travelers near the scanners, large gray bins are available for laptops, and smaller containers for keys, cell phones and other objects. Those chosen for extra scrutiny are directed to an adjacent area separated by a glass partition, permitting them to keep an eye on their possessions while allowing others to pass through. Chairs nearby make it easier for passengers to put their shoes back on.

Pier C now has five scanning lanes, instead of four. In addition, a small X-ray machine was installed to more rapidly scan the many shoes being removed and screened. The team also concentrated on adequately staffing the checkpoint during the airport's peak hours.

"Being able to get a jump by opening the checkpoints at 4 a.m. is absolutely critical," Miller said. Even a delay of a few minutes has caused lines too long to recover from easily.

As a result of these changes, he said, security workers scan as many as 700 passengers an hour - 40 percent more than in early February. The changes, he added, cost little to implement and required only a small boost in staffing. On Pier C, that meant an increase from 38 people a day to 40.

Security training will also be heavily weighted on courtesy. Airport officials around the country will be sharing their experiences and looking for the best ways to defuse difficult situations, said Marriott's Krause.

"Listen and acknowledge the inconvenience," he told the security teams yesterday. "Our attentiveness is how we'll get them to feel comfortable and confident, and it's going to take all of us."

He predicts they will succeed:

"I think we're going to have a lot of people coming to us saying, `How did you do it?'"

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