Searches at airports to be more random

Airport security due new focusSecurity procedures grow less predictable

scissors and small tools to be permitted again

December 03, 2005|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Airline passengers will again be allowed to take small scissors and tools onto planes as part of changes announced yesterday by the federal agency that oversees airport security. But gone, it says, will be some of the predictability that travelers had come to expect but that worried security personnel.

The agency said the changes, which it plans to begin Dec. 22, will help shift the focus to identifying explosives and terrorists, with more frequent and more random searches. Passengers will still have to pass through metal detectors and will still have to take their shoes off.

"It is paramount to the security of our aviation system that terrorists not be able to know with certainty what screening procedures they will encounter at airports around the nation," Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration, said yesterday in a statement.

"By incorporating unpredictability into our procedures and eliminating low-threat items, we can better focus our efforts on stopping individuals that wish to do us harm."

Reaction to the change revealed conflicting visions about how to best maintain vigilance in the skies as passengers return in record numbers.

Some pilots, flight attendants and security experts protested the plan to permit sharp objects on planes, given that the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers used box cutters as weapons. Some in Congress say they will introduce legislation to ban such objects.

Many airlines and traveler groups support the revision, saying that the focus on items such as small scissors was misdirected.

Behaviorists and other experts worry that more random and frequent pat-downs and baggage searches might reintroduce anxiety, fear or frustration that had subsided for most travelers as they adjusted, or at least had become inured, to the routine.

"The routine [the TSA] established was helpful, even though it was painful at times, because people thought at least it's thorough and systematic, and they knew what to expect," said Robbie Blinkoff, a principal anthropologist for Context-Based Research Group, which studies consumer behavior for corporations.

Passengers interviewed yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport supported the changes.

"Whatever it takes," said Amy Kennai of Baltimore, who was headed to San Diego. "I'm not sure what will make us safer. I know they miss stuff now, like I've had lighters in my bag and my friend last month had a pocketknife that was missed at BWI but caught in Denver."

After the 2001 attacks, many passengers were assured of - and reassured by - longer security lines, having to take their coats and shoes off and placing their belongings in buckets headed toward an X-ray machine.

Travelers whose acts were deemed suspicious, such as paying cash for a one-way ticket, got extra attention from screeners. Even semi-frequent flyers had become so used to the drill that some were frustrated by fellow passengers who didn't know they had to take off their shoes and leave their scissors home.

"Randomness is a good thing, a global best practice, and I don't think that's disputable," said Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group. "But, on the other hand, passengers' biggest complaint is consistency. And now everything goes out the window. Now everyone is that once-a-year-traveler who doesn't know the rules. It'll definitely slow things down and build anxiety."

Mitchell said the TSA has largely accomplished its mission and that flying has grown safer. Cockpit doors are reinforced, all baggage is screened, many pilots are armed, and flights have air marshals and passengers willing to take on any threat.

The government should focus more attention on securing cargo, which is not subject to the same kind of scrutiny, protecting the tarmac and expanding intelligence that can thwart efforts to bring a plane down from the ground, he said.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union representing more than 22,000 American Airlines flight attendants, said that every day at airports, the TSA confiscates tens of thousands of items that could be used as weapons. The agency said about 468,000 tools and scissors, about a quarter of the banned items confiscated, were taken from passengers from April to October this year.

"There is absolutely no reason for these potential weapons to be on board the aircraft," said Tommie Hutto-Blake, the union's president. "Passengers are free to transport these items in their checked luggage. We believe that there are many issues that need to be addressed to streamline the passenger screening process, and putting passengers and cabin crew at greater risk is not the answer."

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