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Security hassles will lessen -- someday

September 09, 2007|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Love that ban on liquids on a plane? No? Well, you'll still have to throw out that water bottle before you hit the airline security checkpoint because the ban probably will be in effect at least through the rest of this year.

That's the word from Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley. In a recent phone interview, Hawley talked about the changes in airport security, a process that can be, at the least, an annoyance and, at worst, a major aggravation.

"The two big issues that we hear about from customers are shoes and not really understanding the liquids policy," he said. "We're putting a lot of focus on it."

Ah, shoes. We'll get to them in a minute. But first, liquids. It has been a bit more than a year since implementation of the ban on carrying more than 3-ounce bottles of liquid through security. The crackdown occurred in August 2006 in the wake of a plot to smuggle liquid bomb-making materials on board airplanes in London.

Working with the National Laboratories, the TSA is trying to develop reliable testing devices for liquid explosives. "We expect it will pay dividends, whether it's 2008 or 2009, but it won't be 2007," Hawley said.

So it's still hasta la vista to larger bottles of liquids and gels if you want to carry them through security. Or is it?

At six airports -- Portland (Ore.) International; William P. Hobby and George Bush Intercontinental, both in Houston; Palm Beach and Tampa International in Florida; and Chicago O'Hare -- the TSA is providing another option besides discarding the items or transferring them to your checked luggage (often too late by the time you're at security).

A new program, called Mailsafe Express, allows passengers to mail banned items or have them held at the airport for their return without ever leaving the security line. A TSA officer escorts the passenger to an ATM-like kiosk and puts the item in an envelope and in the kiosk. The officer then returns to screening duties. The passenger types in mailing information, swipes a credit card and proceeds through security. The TSA says it takes about two minutes and costs $8.95 and higher, plus postage.

The TSA recently ended restrictions on carrying lighters through security. They were banned after Richard Reid unsuccessfully tried to light a bomb concealed in his shoes on a U.S.-bound flight from Paris in 2001. Reid, you may recall, used matches.

"The longer-term strategy is to lighten up . . . at the checkpoint," Hawley said.

So does this mean we may soon be able to walk through security wearing our shoes?

"I will be the happiest person there is when we can screen shoes on people's feet," he said. But for now, you'll still need to take your shoes off because technology has yet to present a viable alternative to removing shoes and having them X-rayed.

The TSA, sometimes criticized for implementing policies after the fact, is moving to be more proactive. In a major shift in emphasis, it is training its officers in "person-based screening," which focuses on telltale actions that indicate intent. It "has to do with involuntarily human behaviors," Hawley said.

About 600 officers have been redeployed from behind X-ray machines to scan the public for suspicious behaviors. The TSA hopes to take over the checking of travel identification and boarding passes, offering an opportunity to interact more closely with the traveling public and to detect those who need secondary screening.

Thus the emphasis shifts to checking people rather than things. Terrorists "will use weapons that are created around the security measurers that are in place," Hawley said.

As many as 2,000 security officers, uniformed and plainclothes, will be trained and redeployed in the coming year, Hawley said. Because Congress probably won't authorize an increase in the number of screeners, Hawley hopes technology can relieve some of the burden of screening, including X-ray machines that take a more sophisticated picture of carry-on bags.

"It will allow us to make judgments about carry-on bags more quickly" and free up personnel, Hawley said. Some of the new machines are used at LAX.

Longer term, Hawley would like to enhance security while easing the congestion and stress of the checkpoint.

"Now when I see people coming through, there is a look of resignation," he said. "Calming down the checkpoint, making it less congested, people will feel more welcome."

Contact James Gilden at

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