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New Security Gets a Stamp of Approval

Travelers praise precautions as federal screeners work their first holiday weekend.

November 28, 2002|Caitlin Liu, John L. Mitchell and Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writers

At the start of the busiest holiday travel weekend, an army of new federal airport security screeners Wednesday handled a passenger traffic flow that was moderately higher than a year ago with few reported snags and generally positive reviews from travelers.

This Thanksgiving weekend is expected to be the first big test for the nation's 30,000 new federally trained and hired security screeners, who were deployed over the last few weeks. But the normally long holiday lines at airports throughout Southern California were for the most part painlessly short and passengers for the most part were accepting of the new workers and the extra security measures.

"The screeners are very professional," said Alan Olson, 55, who was traveling to Las Vegas from Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday. "They seem to know what they are doing, and I travel all the time."

Some passengers who quit flying after Sept. 11, 2001, said they have slowly regained their faith in air travel, partly because of improvements in screening and security throughout the airline industry.

Passenger Beverly Wright of Lake Forest in southern Orange County said she stopped flying for nine months after the terrorist attacks. But on Wednesday, she was getting ready to board a plane for Dallas from John Wayne Airport to visit relatives for Thanksgiving.

"I like all the precautions and security measures," she said. "The airlines seem more attentive about safety now. The federal screeners seem better trained. It gives you a good feeling."At Los Angeles International Airport, the world's fifth-busiest airport, officials predicted that 800,000 travelers would pass through this weekend, up 16% over last year's 690,000 passengers. But the increase won't offset the dramatic decline since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. During Thanksgiving 2000, LAX served a record 925,000.

Airport officials in Burbank, San Diego, Ontario and San Francisco expected an increase of 5% to 7% in travelers over last year.

In Orange County, John Wayne Airport is expected to handle almost 100,000 passengers for the Thanksgiving travel period, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday. About 97,000 travelers passed through the facility at this time last year.

Automobile travel this holiday weekend is expected to increase by 1.2% over last year, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California. The most popular destinations for Southern Californians include Las Vegas, Disneyland and Palm Springs.

Still, the travel industry, in particular the airlines, continues to suffer the lingering effects of the terrorist attacks.

The airlines' share of security costs has soared since the attacks, and those costs are one reason the airline industry is suffering one of its worst periods in history. The airlines have been pressing Congress for help in paying for their higher security and insurance expenses.

The industry lost more than $7 billion last year and is expected to lose at least that much this year. US Airways is operating under Bankruptcy Court protection, and United Airlines, the largest operator at LAX and San Francisco International Airport and the nation's second-largest carrier after American, may file for bankruptcy reorganization within the next few weeks.

Despite the increase in passenger volume at Southern California airports, officials said the new security measures were adding five to 10 minutes to the waiting time for passenger boardings.

Under the new measures, passengers at most airports must get a boarding pass or ticket before they can enter the security screening area. Checked luggage is scanned with an X-ray machine. Most carry-on luggage is closely searched by hand. Many travelers are instructed to remove their shoes, belts and hats for closer scrutiny. A passenger who sets off a stationary metal detector must be searched by screeners using hand-held metal detectors.

Chris Moyer, a 38-year-old software engineer who was flying home to Spokane, Wash., from Burbank, said he was pleasantly surprised by the increased security measures.

He said screeners scanned his saxophone case through an X-ray machine and were able to tell that is was not just a saxophone but that it was an alto sax. "I look back now and it was a joke.... Security is real now," he said.

But not everyone was happy with the increased measures.

Jon Sanchez, a 17-year-old West Hills resident who was flying out of Burbank to Seattle to visit family, complained that a screener ordered him to remove his shoes, belt and a gold chain around his neck.

"He was a jerk," Sanchez said of the screener. "He gave me attitude."

Satik Mannoki Massihi, 44, of Glendale and Teresa Larena, 46, of Atwater Village have more profound reasons to be unhappy with the new screeners.

The two women, both single mothers, lost their jobs as screeners at Burbank Airport to the new federal workers.

Both women earned about $12 an hour but lost the jobs because neither is an American citizen. Their last day is Monday.

"The holiday will be a problem for me," said Larena, who has a 9-year-old son. "I don't have a job. No money. No nothing."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Holiday travel

LAX passenger traffic over Thanksgiving weekend and percentage change from the previous year.

1998

Travelers -- 815,000

1999

Travelers -- 862,0006

% chg -- 6

2000

Travelers -- 925,000**

% chg -- 7

2001

Travelers -- 690,000

% chg -- -25

2002

Travelers -- 800,000*

% chg -- 16

Source: Los Angeles World Airports

Note: *estimated, **record

*

Times staff writers Martha Groves, John M. Glionna, James F. Peltz, Dan Weikel and Bettina Boxall contributed to this report.

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