Holiday travelers who left before Christmas are likely to have a different airport experience if they fly home after New Year’s Day.
Their checked bags probably will be searched for explosives, although the search method machine, human hands or dogs will vary by airport. And at more than 40 airports, travelers with only carry-on bags no longer can head straight to the gate. They’ll have to make a detour to the ticket counter or a kiosk to get a boarding pass.
The changes are bound to create problems, said Michael Boyd, a Denver-based airline consultant. He offered travelers this advice: Don’t check anything, and get there very early.
“It could be total chaos,” he said.
Enhanced security at airports isn’t new for frequent air travelers. They know that they will have to show a government-issued ID several times before reaching the gate. Coats, and sometimes shoes, must be taken off and run through the same machines that check carry-on bags. Travelers may be randomly selected for a second, and even a third, search.
The new security is overseen by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), created after the September 11 terrorist attacks to make travel safer. In the past year, the agency has hired more than 50,000 people to screen passengers and baggage at 424 commercial airports.
Now the TSA is in the midst of adding another layer of security: screening all checked bags for explosives. It is an enormous undertaking; an estimated 1.5 billion bags get checked at U.S. airports every year.
Small airports can meet the screening requirement easily, because they can use labor-intensive methods, such as searching by hand and using a wand that detects explosives residue on the outside of bags.
Larger airports need more efficient sport-utility-vehicle-sized bomb-detection machines. They have been in short supply, though, and it can take months for older airports to shore up floors to hold them, build power stations to run them, and construct ramps, conveyor belts and guardrails to incorporate them into baggage-handling systems.
Congress originally stipulated that every bag be screened starting Jan. 1. But lawmakers agreed last month to extend the deadline after airport managers complained that the TSA had waited until the summer to begin ordering, delivering and installing the bomb-detection machines. Airports said that didn’t leave them enough time to meet the cutoff date.
The TSA is working hard to get as many of the machines in place as possible by New Year’s Day, often in temporary locations, such as lobbies.
“It’s a madhouse,” said Jerry Orr, aviation director at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, where 16 big bomb-detection machines are being delivered. “I’m hoping that we won’t delay any airplanes.”
TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said the agency is pleased by the progress, though he acknowledged that the situation at some airports is hectic.
Charlotte is temporarily setting up its machines to stand alone, which means TSA screeners will have to put bags into machines by hand, a cumbersome process. It will take months for the airport to incorporate the bomb-screening machines into the automated baggage system.
There’s also the problem of “false positives” a machine recording an explosive or weapon when none exists. Some machines register such readings nearly a third of the time. In those cases, a TSA screener must open the bag and search it by hand.
“The machines are simply too unreliable to efficiently process the number of people and bags going through the system,” said Kenneth Quinn, former general counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Mr. Johnson said officials are confident that by New Year’s Day every bag will be checked by a machine, by hand, by wands, by bomb-sniffing dogs or matched to a passenger before takeoff.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said matching bags to passengers a system in place since February is easier for airports but not as effective as physically inspecting bags. “It assumes you have a nonsuicidal bomber,” he said.
Some airports will manage to screen all baggage on Jan. 1. Boston’s Logan International Airport began construction in the summer and spent $146 million to build an automated screening system including 2.8 miles of new conveyor belts behind the ticket counter. Logan officials say air travelers won’t notice any difference from the old system, which didn’t screen bags.
But at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, travelers must carry their bags from the ticket counter to the bomb-detection station in the lobby, where a TSA screener will put the bags through a machine. The passenger then walks around to the other side, where the machine spits out the baggage after scanning it. A screener then hand-searches bags that generate false positives. Then the passenger checks the bag.