- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

A new system of screening all checked baggage at U.S. airports started with only minor turbulence yesterday.
The true test is likely to come today and Sunday, the first busy days for travel since the congressionally mandated Dec. 31 deadline for screening checked bags.
The security measure is one of many that Congress required for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency created in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Inspection of all checked baggage for explosives is the last security check being implemented by TSA.
Before September 11, 2001, only 5 percent of bags were screened for explosives, the TSA said.
Passengers flying through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and airport officials in the Washington region yesterday were generally satisfied with the screening system, which usually uses electronic scanners to inspect luggage.
"The TSA screening system has not been a cause for delays," said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the agency.
"It was speedy," said Mark Anderson, a Stafford, Va., resident flying to El Paso, Texas, yesterday morning.
And TSA employees working at the airport were pleased with the screening technology.
"It's surprising … but this is coming off remarkably well," said Darryl Wallace, a TSA screener working one of the large electronic machines starting at 6:30 a.m. yesterday.
Reagan Airport has 18 screening machines, and Washington Dulles International Airport has four in public areas. Baltimore-Washington International Airport has had at least five machines in place for several months.
Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Dulles and Reagan, and at BWI would not release more detailed information, citing a request from the TSA. The federal agency would not say how many electronic systems are online nationwide.
About 56,000 security screeners working in all phases of airport security are on the job, the TSA noted.
Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said passenger volume was low yesterday; the true test at Dulles airport is likely today and at National and Dulles Sunday, she said.
Passengers with flights originating outside of the region yesterday also said the system was working.
"It feels safe," said Lucila Cordone, who flew out of Buenos Aires yesterday. She said her baggage was checked twice, without significant delay, at John F. Kennedy International Airport when she connected through New York on her way to Washington.
Not all airports were using the electronic machines, though. TSA officials said all checked baggage was being screened at the nations's 429 airports, but only about 90 percent of those used the electronic systems. The rest were using hand inspections and other means.
Some major airports TSA would not specify which ones do not have the electronic systems because of equipment manufacturing delays, and some airports are not physically equipped to handle the large and heavy equipment.
"They were searching all checked luggage by hand," said Drayton Freeman, whose flight originated in Orlando, Fla., and connected through Washington on his way home to Boston.
Mr. Freeman said high passenger traffic and the inspections caused some delay on the way to his gate.
And some airports caught passengers off guard with early screening. At Los Angeles International Airport, New Year's Eve travelers were stuck in hour-long lines awaiting a baggage screening that included hand searches of ski bags and an examination of one suitcase because screeners said a pair of shoes had traces of nitroglycerine. A supervisor, Gavin Irwin, later told the traveler it could have been the residue of hand lotion.
The unexpected searches delayed hundreds of travelers en route to destinations across the country, forcing at least one airline bankrupt United Airlines to have dozens of employees rebook and reroute travelers.
Others in Washington said the system's efficiency depended on individual airlines. Cathy and Pat Fritz from Thurmont, Md., sent one relative to West Palm Beach, Fla., via US Airways and another to Dallas via Delta Airlines.
"US Air seemed a little backed up, a little disorganized," Mrs. Fritz said. "Delta was better."
Area airport officials are hoping the screening system continues to work well today and through the rest of the holiday rush, traditional days for high passenger volume, delays and long lines.
"New Year's Day is a little light," said John White, a spokesman for Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The airport expects to handle 524,000 passengers through the holiday season, which runs from Dec. 27 through Jan. 6. The busiest days left on the calendar are today, when 55,000 passengers are expected, and Sunday, when 58,000 are expected, Mr. White said.
A normal day would see 45,000 passengers, so the increase is significant.
BWI spokeswoman Melanie Miller yesterday said that the TSA has used the airport to train personnel for about five months and that the Dec. 31 deadline passed without straining the airport's check-in system.
"There's no problems, no complications," she said.
Regional airport officials are recommending that travelers arrive at the airport at least 1 hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
Mark Kellner contributed to this report.


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