Passengers relieved as new baggage rules cause few delays; some doubt skies are safer

Saturday, January 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Travelers anticipating chaos at the nation's airports breathed a sigh of relief as the introduction of new baggage screening policies caused few delays and little hassle.

Airlines began screening all checked bags Friday under the federal Aviation and Transportation Security Act, and most passengers didn't seem to mind the minor airport delays that resulted. Others, however, doubted that the new security measures would really make the skies safer.

``It's all hype,'' said George Lax, a New York attorney waiting at LaGuardia Airport for a flight to Miami. ``It's psychological to make people relax. The only way they're going to do it is to take every bag and X-ray it. And even then you can't be sure.''

The federal law allows airlines to use one of four methods to better track baggage: explosive-detection machines, hand searches, bomb-sniffing dogs, or making sure checked luggage was matched to boarded passengers.

Most airlines were expected to choose the bag-matching option, meant to prevent someone from checking a bag full of explosives without boarding the plane.

Critics say that method does little to discourage a suicide bomber. They also say explosives could still get on a plane without a passenger because bag-matching was required only on the first leg of a trip, not connecting flights.

Still, most passengers taking to the skies Friday seemed satisfied with the new security measures, and pleasantly surprised that they didn't cause serious delays.

At Boston's Logan Airport, Wendy Snyder, a traveling nanny, said the lines were actually shorter than usual for international flights.

``Because I travel a lot, I get here extra, extra early,'' said Snyder, 24, while waiting in line for a flight to Puerto Rico. ``I'm really impressed with the lines.''

David De La Cruz arrived at Logan 2 1/2 hours early to drop off his grandmother for a 10 a.m. flight to Miami. Thinking about what happened on Sept. 11, he said he didn't mind setting aside extra time for the new regulations.

``I support them 100 percent for our safety, just the way we need air bags and seat belts,'' he said. ``This will prevent a lot of things happening like on 9-1-1.''

Beyond appreciating the beefed-up security measures, some passengers seemed genuinely impressed by the thoroughness of screeners looking through their bags.

``They went through every article, my toiletries, deodorant, razors, everything,'' said Jon Franz, of Chicago, at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. ``It's pretty amazing.''

Airlines will be responsible for security until Feb. 17, when the federal government takes over. Under a congressional mandate, all baggage will have to be screened with explosives-detection machines by the end of the year.

Julia Bishop-Cross, a spokeswoman for American Airlines in St. Louis, said she wasn't surprised that Friday was such a smooth travel day. She said American switched its operations several days ahead of the deadline.

``It's pretty transparent to our customers,'' she said. ``So much of this is going on behind the scenes.''

However, at Los Angeles International Airport, several people waited in line for 20 minutes _ just so someone could tell them what line to wait in.

``They didn't plan it very well,'' said Melissa Johnson, who was flying to Minneapolis. ``They needed a better system to tell people where to go.''

Matching bags with passengers also slows things down if someone manages to check luggage and then misses the flight.

At the airport in Manchester, N.H., several bags were yanked from a plane for that very reason. However, the flight was not delayed, and airport director Kevin Dillon said the incident proved the system works.

Air traffic was flowing nicely Friday at nearly all the nation's major hubs, including the airports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Denver and Seattle.

In Denver, Mark Keen said his flight from Houston had departed about 10 minutes late. He said he watched from his seat as workers reviewed rosters and checked bags, presumably to ensure their owners were aboard the airplane.

``That took a little bit more time,'' he said, ``but other than that, no problems whatsoever.''