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New Air Security Could Bring Surprise Benefits

June 02, 2002|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Get to the airport early. Be ready to take off your shoes as you go through security. Don't pack a corkscrew or a cricket bat in your carry-on luggage.

Although I seldom carry on a cricket bat, my air travel habits have changed because of heightened airport security. I used to carry on as much as possible so I could zip out of my destination airport without having to stop to retrieve bags. Now I carry on very little to avoid trouble at security. I've also started using curbside baggage check-in because I can go directly to security without standing in line at the ticket counter.

The new security measures have made me a better, happier traveler now that I no longer stagger down airport concourses burdened with baggage. And it also seems that the heightened security has had some strikingly positive effects on the way the airlines handle checked luggage. The Department of Transportation says the incidence of mishandled baggage--luggage that is damaged, delayed, pilfered or lost--has declined since Sept. 11. In February, major American carriers reported 3.85 cases of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, compared with 4.88 in February 2001. Of course, that may, in part, be a result of decreased passenger loads.

Since the DOT instituted a security procedure known as "positive bag matching" on Jan. 18, it has become impossible--at least theoretically--for the airlines to lose or misdirect checked bags. The procedure makes it necessary for flight crews to determine that everybody who is supposed to be on a plane is there. If the manifest reflects a no-show, that passenger's luggage is removed before takeoff. It's a fairly rudimentary precaution that keeps terrorists from planting explosives in checked luggage and disappearing. But it has loopholes: It doesn't deter suicide bombers, and positive bag matching has not been mandated for luggage that is transferred when passengers make connections.

Interestingly, positive bag matching hasn't gridlocked air travel. Airport security experts like Houston-based Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of Air Security International, say that positive bag matching slows down the system only when a no-show forces the airline to retrieve bags before departure. But with computerized baggage locator systems, removing suspect bags rarely takes more than 10 minutes, LeBlanc says.

The near elimination of lost bags could be an unintended benefit. "Hopefully it will lessen bag loss, though that's not the first concern of the Transportation Security Administration," says Deirdre O'Sullivan, a spokesperson for the TSA, a branch of the DOT that handles transportation security.

There is a downside to positive bag matching, as far as I'm concerned: People who get to the airport well ahead of time and check their bags can't take an earlier flight if they find one because they must fly on the same plane as their checked bags.

The bag matching probably will continue after Dec. 31, the date Congress set for the addition of thousands of high-tech checked baggage screening systems at airports, the DOT says.

These include an explosive trace detector, or ETD, a system that requires operators to pass a wand around baggage in search of bomb material residue, and a computerized explosives detecting system, or EDS, which finds explosives in the same way medical CT scans locate tumors.

These machines will bring more changes to air travel. They are "going to slow down the system," says Jerome Greer Chandler, safety and security editor for the online magazine www.frequentflyer.oag.com. "How much, we just don't know."

The explosives detecting system is faster than the explosive trace detector. It can scan bags in 10 seconds. If it sees something suspicious, it does a further assessment, which takes about 30 seconds. Don Mattson, chief operating officer of InVision Technologies Inc., a Bay Area company that makes the EDS (each costs $700,000 to $1.5 million), says that 80% of checked bags will go through the machines without a hitch but that 20% will require the 30-second resolution procedure.

If the EDS can't resolve the problem, airport security officials will bring in explosive-sniffing dogs. In a worst-case scenario, the owner will be tracked down for questioning and the bag isolated, then destroyed. (This occurred in April at San Francisco International Airport, where a pair of loafers equipped with battery-operated foot warmers was found in a salesman's bag. Bomb experts took the shoes to a shooting range, where they were riddled with bullets.)

EDS scanners have drawbacks. The machines are the size of a minivan, and no one--from airport officials to security experts to the DOT--knows yet where they will be installed. There are two options: in departure lobbies or behind the scenes, integrated into the baggage handling system.

LAX, which could get as many as 17 EDS scanners in each of its nine terminals, is studying the problem. "We can't picture having that many machines in ticket counter areas. There would be no room for people," says Nancy Castles, an LAX spokesperson.

So air travelers must get ready for more changes and adjustments. But I'm trying to remain optimistic. Besides making it safer to fly, maybe the new scanning machines, like positive bag matching, will have benefits no one has thought of yet.

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