March 17, 2010

When Security Takes Longer Than the Flight

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 12:24 am

To get through airport security in Toronto for a flight to the United States, you now have to go through eight different screening lines or ID checks. Most passengers either get a pat-down or have their carry-on bags unpacked on tables, with every toiletry kit and pajama pair carefully checked.

And tight restrictions on carry-on luggage force most road warriors to check their roll-a-board bags. “Ever since the underwear bomber thing, it’s been ridiculous,” said Kevin Koski, who was headed home to Miami from a job interview in Toronto.

[MIDSEAT] Christoph Hitz

Indeed, since the Dec. 25 bombing attempt, travelers headed to the U.S. have faced much tighter security. New rules issued by the federal government dictate that a majority of inbound travelers have to undergo individual searches, once a dreaded rarity for passengers. The searches can include pat-downs, emptying out carry-on luggage and even leafing through wallets and personal papers.

Those rules are likely to stay in force for a long time, officials say. It could be months or even years before high-tech devices such as body scanners replace frisking, for example. So, as we enter the busy spring and summer travel season, hassles and delays are likely to increase.

“If you’re coming inbound to the U.S., it’s going to be a tough summer unless we get some creative change in the security rules,” said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a Geneva-based group that represents airlines around the world.

So far, the delays of three hours and more that became common at international airports in the weeks after the bombing attempt have subsided. Airports, airlines and government agencies around the world have hired more screeners to perform the “enhanced” security that the U.S. now requires for any flight headed to or flying over the 50 states. Passengers are told to show up early for flights to the U.S.—often three hours or more, even for 90-minute flights from Canada and Mexico. And the light passenger loads have made it easier on security screeners.

Airline officials said that government agencies and airports in North America, Europe and Asia have promised that they will staff up enough to prevent long lines and delays as travel picks up this spring and summer. “All we’ve got at this point is their word and we hope their word is good,” said an official at a U.S. airline. “It’s a concern.”

Greg Soule, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, says the agency will “continue to review the measures based on the latest intelligence and insure the highest level of security on flights bound for the U.S.”

Transport Canada, which sets aviation security policy in that country, says the U.S. measures and the even-tougher requirements imposed in Canada will remain “until further notice.”

The immediate reaction after the Christmas Day bombing attempt was to frisk all U.S.-bound travelers and examine all carry-on luggage. In addition, authorities imposed restrictions on passenger behavior aboard planes, such as forcing them to remain seated for the final hour of flights and keep their laps free of blankets, books or magazines. Some of the more onerous security measures were eased last month.

At home, TSA says that in U.S. airports it has increased use of explosive trace detection—when a swab is run over hands or belongings and then tested for dangerous chemicals. Over the next few weeks, a TSA spokesman said, TSA agents will begin swabbing passengers’ hands to check for explosives as fliers stand in line for security screening or wait at gates. Random tests on carry-on bags will also increase using detection machines loaded on carts, the agency says, and 800 smaller, portable machines have been requested in the president’s fiscal 2011 budget. The increase in trace detection by agents roaming airport terminals was first reported by USA Today and CNN.

Travelers report wide variation around the world with security screening for U.S.-bound flights. Some countries like Canada continue to restrict carry-on baggage, for example, while others do not. AMR Corp.’s American Airlines says on its Web site that most customers, unless they have elite-status or a business-class or first-class ticket, are limited to only one carry-on bag when flying from Europe to the U.S., instead of the usual one bag plus a personal item. Those tighter limits aren’t in force for flights arriving from Asia, Mexico, South America or the Caribbean.

Canada has proven to be a particular trouble spot The high volume of passengers who travel across the northern U.S. border has led to long delays at Canadian airports and screening gauntlets that leave travelers frustrated.

To lessen the volume of clothes, papers, gadgets and pill bottles that screeners must go through by hand, Canadian authorities have unilaterally tightened carry-on luggage limits. Normal-sized roll-aboard bags aren’t allowed. Many airlines have waived baggage fees for carry-on bags that have to be checked.

Mike Hudson of Dallas never checks a bag on his business trips—until he was trying to leave Toronto last week. “I think the whole thing is kind of ridiculous,” he said.

In Toronto, travelers line up to have their boarding passes checked and carry-on bags sized and tagged before reaching U.S. Customs and Immigration inspectors. Once past the baggage policing and customs, travelers get another document check, regular security screening and a check of boarding passes again. Then it’s on to the secondary screening station for yet another document check and the screening itself.

Authorities have rows of tables up and down a corridor just past the main security checkpoints. One screener selects travelers for secondary screening; about four of every five passengers were selected on one recent afternoon. Some passengers were frisked, but not all. Women were directed to one line; men to the other. Screeners had each traveler empty pockets onto tables. Electronics were tested for explosive traces. Suitcases, purses and all other bags were completely emptied out, with authorities checking every compartment and unfolding clothes to make sure nothing was hidden.

After that, there’s a final boarding pass check. In all, you have to line up eight times.

“This isn’t crowded and still it was an extra hour,” said John Finley, a steel-company salesman heading to Minneapolis. “There were so many checks and balances, the fourth time is a bit unnecessary.”

“Why don’t they just get two dogs and sniff everything if they are worried about bombs?” asked Sam Goldstein, a Salt Lake City psychologist, as he stood in Line No. 6 awaiting secondary screening.

Dr. Goldstein, who travels about 150,000 miles a year, said that as a psychologist he marvels at how quickly people adjust. “You become indoctrinated to this,” he said.

But as a scientist, he also wonders why governments don’t give travelers more data to justify the effectiveness of enhanced screening.

“They want to give the appearance that they are doing something. What would be nice to know is the success rate of various procedures. I think the public has a right to know,” he said.


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