Will airports sacrifice security for sales?

April 22, 2004|By Linda Chavez

WASHINGTON - The feds are considering changing the rules on airport security again, which could end up creating even greater bottlenecks at those security checkpoints that are the bane of every traveler.

Thanks to pressure from some lawmakers and retail companies, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) may open airport terminals once more to people who don't hold airline tickets so that they can greet or send off travelers. Of course, this would mean many more people snaking through security lines, taking off their sneakers, emptying their pockets and subjecting their bodies to pat-downs and wandings by TSA employees. Obviously this isn't going to enhance security, much less make traveling easier or faster, so what's behind this move?

Apparently, some companies and regional airport authorities are distressed that the post-9/11 security rules have ruined their plans to turn airports into shopping malls.

The idea behind terminals-as-malls seems to have come from the duty-free shops that have been in place for decades in most international airports. Duty-free shops allowed travelers to stock up on luxury items without paying the often exorbitant duties or taxes due on certain items. Now, similar shops have become ubiquitous in modern domestic terminals as well.

Pittsburgh International is a prime example.

It is one of the most modern, traveler-friendly airports in the country, thanks to a major $800 million overhaul in 1992. But like many airports, Pittsburgh has been struggling since 9/11. It doesn't help that it depends on one airline for the bulk of its revenues. US Airways, which controls about 80 percent of Pittsburgh's gates and has been struggling with its own financial woes, has been threatening to leave if the airport doesn't lower its costly gate fees. But the airport can't lower gate fees unless it makes up the revenue with parking fees or merchant leases. So the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which runs Pittsburgh International, is hoping to be the first test case to relax the rules on letting family and friends accompany passengers to and from the gate. The TSA is reviewing a proposed plan to open the terminal to nonpassengers, which could be in place this summer if the Department of Homeland Security approves it.

Given increased concerns about terrorist attacks this summer, this may not be the best time to implement such a plan. Longer lines at checkpoints would be unavoidable, increasing the risk that harried TSA screeners might not be as thorough as necessary to stop would-be terrorists. And, unless airlines reinstated photo-ID checks at the gate, which would add even more time to the process, what would stop terrorists from using decoys to purchase tickets, check in and then pass off the boarding pass to someone who might be on a watch list?

A better alternative might be to redesign airports with larger check-in terminals and smaller wait areas past security gates.

Sure, airports have to worry about revenues, but making travel even more time-consuming or less secure isn't the way to go about it.

Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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