Two BWI security checkpoints briefly shut down

TSA said closure came after instance of improper screening

February 26, 2011|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

Several flights were delayed Saturday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, and some arriving passengers were kept waiting aboard planes after two security checkpoints were closed by what officials described as an issue with passenger screening.

The A and B pier checkpoints were closed from about 8:40 a.m. to about 9:20 a.m., when normal operations resumed, said Michael S. McCarthy, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman. The checkpoints serve Southwest Airlines, BWI's dominant carrier.

Officials would reveal little about the nature of the incident. In a statement from TSA, the security error was described as "an instance of improper screening protocol." McCarthy declined to elaborate other than to say that the checkpoints were shut down "out of caution."

"Acting with an abundance of precaution, TSA suspended checkpoint operations for a short period of time," said Jonathan O. Dean, an airport spokesman.

It was unclear whether people were permitted to leave the Southwest concourse area after screening to enter the area was halted. The shutdown had no effect on the concourse areas of any other airlines, Dean said.

Ron Moore, who worked as a TSA checkpoint screener at BWI for more than five years, said an improper screening incident could be an accidental trigger of an alarm, a machine malfunction or an issue with baggage, but not necessarily a full-fledged security breach.

When a security breach occurs — such as someone evading security officers — the TSA typically evacuates the pier and all passengers aboard any waiting plane and forces everyone to re-enter the secured area, he said.

Moore says he believes the incident was caused by a procedural issue, rather than a safety concern.

"If there had been a breach, they would have dumped the pier," said Moore, who had worked at the A and B piers at BWI and was a national TSA union leader. "If a plane is at a gate, everyone gets off that plane."

Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, said the incident caused minimal delays on a handful of flights that were taking off around the time of the shutdown.

"It did cause minimal delays this morning when the security breach did happen," King said.

Passengers on a Southwest flight from Columbus, Ohio, were not permitted to disembark immediately after landing at BWI at 9 a.m., one passenger said.

"We were held on the plane for about 20 minutes and told everything was being held due to a security breach," said Michael Kent, a magician and comedian flying through BWI on his way to perform at a college in Wisconsin. He said the pilot announced a short while later that the incident keeping them aboard the plane had been going on for about 45 minutes, and "that's all they knew."

Fellow passengers seemed resigned to a delay but not panicked, Kent said.

"We didn't have enough information to panic," he said. "From what we could tell, they acted like this was just something that happened."

By early afternoon, screening at the Southwest checkpoints appeared back to normal, with short lines of passengers moving through security without delay and transportation security officers patrolling the terminal area in pairs.

Several passengers who had flown in to BWI or were preparing to board flights said they were unaware of the earlier screening shutdown. None of them reported seeing any stepped-up security activity outside flight gates or experiencing any unusual delays.

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