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LAX Meets Screening Deadline

Despite glitches, intensified baggage checks please airport officials and travelers.

January 01, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles International Airport entered a new era Tuesday as all checked luggage was screened under a federally mandated plan that relies on high-tech scanning machines to improve security.

The move adds an inconvenient step for travelers. But just hours after the system went into full operation, LAX appeared to be handling it with relative ease.

All bags must be screened, and in some cases opened and examined, before a passenger makes it to the airline ticket window to check in.

Bags checked at curbside are also screened, partly negating the time savings that some travelers expect there.

Some aviation experts expressed concern that the screening, ordered to be in place in the nation's 429 commercial airports by the first minute of the new year, would cause extreme frustration, excessive delays and gridlock inside terminals.

On Tuesday there were glitches as some of the hi-tech equipment had to be shut down and some gave improper readings. But although passengers were forced to wait in lines a bit longer than normal, there were few major bottlenecks.

Many passengers said they welcomed the added security, even if it came with minor inconvenience.

"It's something I can live with because I suppose it had to be done, for all of our safety," said Jack Hodges, dressed in a USC football jersey, as he waited in line to board a flight to Miami.

Comments like that had officials smiling.

"We're feeling very good today," said David Stone, federal security director at LAX. Stone said that, barring major equipment breakdowns, each piece of checked baggage would be run through a scanning device. If needed, workers and bomb-sniffing dogs can be called upon to search bags individually.

"Yes, there have been a few glitches," Stone said. "Some of the new equipment we have has not been operating the way we thought. But overall, we're holding up. Most lines are probably about 15 minutes more wait than usual. Not bad."

The new screening machines are prominent in LAX terminals, usually crammed just several feet in front of ticket windows.

Scores of passengers were waiting in lines to have their bags run through the most obtrusive of the devices: pickup-truck sized machines called CT scanners, which can view the insides of bags. The scanners, while effective at seeing inside bags, are cumbersome and costly.

Each of the 58 machines at LAX cost $1 million, paid for by the federal government. Each can scan about 150 bags per hour.

Because there are relatively few of the large machines, most passengers on Tuesday were told to wait in lines for scores of smaller scanners, which are capable of detecting trace amounts of explosives.

LAX has 270 of the hand-held units, each costing about $50,000.

Airport officials said that about 15% of the new equipment was not working properly on Tuesday, contributing to delays.

Stone noted that about 25% of the readings from the CT scanners were showing false positives, necessitating hand searches and intensive questioning.

Lydia Kennard, executive director of the city agency that operates Los Angeles International Airport, cautioned that there was much work to be done. She noted that there is usually a dip in air travel around the New Year's holiday and that an even better test of the system would occur in several days, when more passengers are expected.

She also said that airport officials don't like having bulky scanning equipment taking up space in already crowded terminals and that they are already planning changes.

Within weeks, planners will study how to place the new scanning technology on conveyor belts behind ticket counters.

Another problem is the safety of commercial freight cargo.

Unlike the new rules for passengers, the federal government has not insisted that all cargo be scanned, worrying many aviation experts.

"It's fair to say we have a way to go on this," Stone said. "There are still some vulnerabilities and we will be focusing on them next."

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