Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Airport security tightens

Lines slow as electronics get more-careful scrutiny

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HEBRON - It's 7:55 a.m. Monday at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and the baggage security checkpoint line in Delta Air Lines' Terminal 3 is already several hundred deep.

A woman dressed in business attire steps off a long escalator but stops before entering the snaking rope line of passengers waiting to go through a half-dozen checkpoints.

She bends over and removes a laptop computer from a satchel and a hand-held computer from a briefcase, knowing both are more than likely to be checked by baggage screeners.

Welcome to what frequent fliers refer to as "Laptop Monday" at the airport, when a crush of mostly business travelers must endure waits as baggage screeners increase scrutiny of electronic equipment.

"It's like this every Monday. I see it when I come in," said Israel Shabtai, a 51-year-old engineer from Erie, Pa., who travels to Cincinnati and other cities several times a month. "You get kind of used to it, but the lines have been moving slower lately. They must be getting tougher on what they check."

They are.

Federal officials concerned that terrorists may try to fashion electronic devices into bombs have alerted Transportation Security Administration baggage screeners to more closely check cameras, cell phones, remote control automobile keys, radios and other electronic devices.

Last week the Department of Homeland Security warned in an advisory "al-Qaida may attempt to modify common electronic items carried by air travelers, such as cameras, for use as weapons in order to circumvent improved security screening."

"Most portable electronic equipment is ideal for concealment of explosives," the department said in the advisory. "Al-Qaida operatives have shown a special interest in converting a camera flash attachment into a stun gun."

Shabtai said in recent weeks the time to move through baggage checks "has slowed a little."

"But I'm from Israel," he said. "We've had this there for 20 years. You get used to it."

But passengers are complaining about the slow pace of moving through security, particularly in Cincinnati, where the government cut the airport security screening force by 26 percent in May. The cuts were part of a 10.7 percent nationwide reduction in screeners.

A spokesman at Delta's Atlanta headquarters said he could not comment because the issue involves security measures, a topic the airlines are referring to the federal government.

By around 8:15 a.m. Monday the line for baggage checks was at its peak, with travelers waiting 15 to 20 minutes to be cleared.

Mark Farella, a 34-year-old information technology consultant from Clarkston, Mich., was passing through Cincinnati on Monday. He travels with a laptop computer "and it is always checked," he said.

"You just know it's going to happen, so you just get to the airport a little sooner," Farella said. "It can be tricky if you're running late and you have to change planes. But it's a fact of life if you are going to fly."

Screening electronic devices won't make lines longer "because we're already doing this," said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the TSA in Washington.

But David Stempler, president of the Washington-based Air Travelers Association, said delays were possible because leisure fliers in summer outnumbered business fliers, who typically breezed through security because they fly often and knew the screening process.

"There are lots of people carrying cameras, digital camcorders, CD players and other electronic devices" who don't realize those items have to be screened separately, Stempler said.

To speed up the process, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge wants passengers to remove cameras, cell phones, computers and other electronic devices form their carry-on luggage and carrying cases, and place them on detection-machine conveyor belts before security personnel ask them to.

That's what Cincinnati resident Mark Christie of GE Financial did recently with his cell phone when he flew Delta out of the airport.

"I knew they were going to check it," said Christie, a 28-year-old East Walnut Hills resident who was at the airport Monday to pick up a colleague. "So I just got it out and had it ready. The line still moved pretty slowly. You do what you can to speed it up."

While in town last week, Delta chairman and CEO Leo Mullin said balancing customer satisfaction with increasing security is "one of the toughest issues we have."

"The (Atlanta airport) situation is terrible, and to a certain extent, you have the same situation here" in Cincinnati, Mullin said. "We can't control every aspect of the airport experience the way we used to handle it.

"Intense security will be part of our life for the next 10 years or perhaps forever," Mullin said. "So we have to accept that and work with the TSA extensively. We continue to have intensive discussions about pushing back on this security issue. We want to minimize the harm to the passenger ... but we have to remember that the ultimate metric here is to stop terrorism, and we have to shore up any fundamental vulnerability."

Veteran traveler Charles Bauer, a 69-year-old accountant from Hamilton, doesn't like standing in long security lines as he travels frequently on business or to Florida.

"There's so much inconsistency from airport to airport," Bauer said. "In Cincinnati, a roll of (mints) wrapped in foil sets the metal detectors off in security. In other places, it doesn't.

"Some places you have to take off your shoes and belt, other places let you walk right through," he said.

But Bauer has also adopted an attitude the government and the airlines wish more fliers would take.

"I look at it this way," he said. "If all the security prevents some kind of accident, then I'll spend a few extra minutes in security rather than having a bunch of people get killed."


James Pilcher contributed. E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com

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