Spying the 34 package-laden holiday travelers in line at the Northwest Airlines ticket counter yesterday morning, a savvy Jennifer Qualls made a beeline for the new electronic check-in kiosk.
The Prince George's County teacher swiped her credit card, pushed a couple of buttons and the machine spat out her boarding pass - and she was on her way home to Detroit.
"I freaked out thinking about the long holiday lines," said Qualls, 29, motioning to the snaking lines of passengers waiting for ticket agents. "But this was a cinch."
At last count, 36 of the ATM-like ticketing machines have sprouted at Baltimore-Washington International Airport - the latest innovation in the airport's battle to keep passengers moving even as people and their bags are subject to more intense security checks.
In the next few weeks, security measures at BWI will change again in several ways. There will be an added inconvenience - passengers will soon need boarding passes to go to their gates - but also the end of a major hassle. Random passenger searches at gates will be all but eliminated as a more sophisticated screening system is implemented at the security checkpoints.
BWI will also meet the federal deadline of screening all checked baggage by Jan. 1. The Transportation Security Administration has spent this month installing 15 explosives-detecting machines in the airport to handle the job.
While several machines will be left in the airport lobby, most will be out of view in the baggage-handling area. The TSA will also use swabs that detect explosive residue on bags and hand searches and bomb-sniffing dogs to screen baggage.
BWI officials say they are working with the TSA to expedite the searches. "We need to make sure they're not delaying flights by putting all the bags through the machines," said the airport's executive director, Paul Wiedefeld.
Advocates for travelers, while mindful of the need for heightened airport security, are also concerned about the security of the luggage. In packing guidelines issued last week, the TSA asked passengers not to use locks on their bags because they might need to be opened for a search.
"We've had a lot of cases where baggage handlers have stolen things," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. Even if the baggage handlers are honest and well-supervised, as the TSA promises, there could be problems, he said.
"It could be inadvertent that something spills out, or they could take things out and fail to put them back in," Stempler said. "At the end of the day, the passengers may suffer for it because I think everyone's going to disclaim responsibility, and the passenger will be responsible."
The TSA will leave notices in bags that are opened for searches. And starting Jan. 1 bright orange plastic ties will be available in airport lobbies for passengers to attach to their bags' zippers. If passengers find a broken tie when they retrieve their bags, they'll know the bag was searched.
In another security change, passengers at BWI will soon need a boarding pass to get through the security checkpoint. At BWI, about 25 percent of passengers proceed directly to their gate without checking their bags. In the first few months of next year - an exact date has not been set - those passengers will be required to pick up boarding passes.
They can be obtained at the ticket counter, at the curbside check-in or from one of the new ticketing kiosks. About 1,500 Southwest Airlines passengers a day - or 10 percent of the passenger load - use the kiosks at BWI. It's the airline's second-highest use rate in the country, behind only Phoenix's.
"It's the future of ticketing," said BWI's Wiedefeld.
When the boarding pass requirement takes effect, TSA will drastically reduce the number of agents conducting random searches at gates.
That's because the boarding passes of people who are potential threats will be flagged to alert screeners at the checkpoints to pull them aside for a thorough check.
A complicated computer matrix decides who is a threat based on a number of factors, including whether the passenger bought a one-way ticket or paid in cash.
It will then be much less likely people will be searched twice - once at the checkpoint and once at the gate.
"It's a huge hassle factor for people: You've been screened once. Why are you being screened again?" Wiedefeld said.
Dealing with the rush
These changes are coming during one of the airport's busiest times of the year. BWI expects 513,000 passengers will use the airport between Dec. 19 and Sunday - down about 4 percent from last year.
The airport has handled the rush with ease, officials said. At 9 a.m. yesterday, as a man walked up to the Southwest counter and found just six people in line ahead of him, a ticket agent asked facetiously, "Did you expect a long line like this today?"
Five minutes later, there was not a single person in the line for Southwest, which carries 45 percent of BWI's passengers. The ticket agents, suddenly realizing what had taken place, erupted in a cheer and then went back to work.