Friday, October 10, 2003

The Transportation Security Administration is relaxing its rules on items that can be carried onto commercial airplanes as it refines its security system to identify potential terrorists.

Nail clippers, blunt scissors and cigar cutters are back in. So are corkscrews and knitting needles.

Passengers also have the option of leaving their shoes on rather than being asked to remove them as airport screeners search for bombs or weapons.

Searches of passengers begin before they arrive at the airport. Ticket purchases are matched by computer to the passengers’ personal financial and traveling records to identify suspicious behavior.

One-way tickets purchased with cash on short notice, for example, raise questions about whether a passenger intends an attack on an airplane from which he does not plan to return. Certain Middle Eastern cities as points of origin also raise suspicions.

X-ray machines, bomb-detection devices, thousands of air marshals and reinforced cockpit doors backstop the profiling system and screener searches.

“We’re not so worried about someone getting through a reinforced cockpit door with a pair of tweezers,” Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokesman Brian Turmail said.

Passengers concerned about their own safety also act as eyes and ears for the agency.

“We have a much more aware and a much more vigilant traveling public,” Mr. Turmail said.

More changes to the list of prohibited items are coming as security becomes more sophisticated.

“It’s always going to change,” he said. “TSA wants to focus as much of its efforts as possible on finding bad people and bad things. This is why we periodically review the prohibited-items list to ensure that the items not allowed on planes pose a legitimate security threat.”

Airlines welcome the rule relaxation for carry-on items, saying it could help their business by reducing the unpleasantness of searches and seizures at checkpoints.

“They’ve gone from a total shutdown of mail service by U.S. airlines to a system that is based on risk assessment and prevention,” said Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for major airlines. “We think one end product will be a higher level of convenience that will begin to return to U.S. airline service.”

An advocacy group for airline customers said allowing passengers to carry a wider variety of items on their flights created little risk.

“Many of the original rules were done in haste, and we believe that the changed rules resulted from a re-examination,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, which has monitored the TSA’s security actions.

“Based on the type of items we have seen, we don’t think there is a noticeable increase in security risk,” he said.

Mr. Turmail agreed, saying the layers of security now used on airlines minimize risks that would have been significant before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Bottom line, air travelers are more secure today than they have ever been in American history,” he said.

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