Passengers brace for lines as bags subjected to new scrutiny; no immediate reports of delays
Friday, January 18th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
Airlines began new baggage screening techniques at the nation's airports Friday, and some fliers fearful of long lines showed up early.
A law went into effect Friday requiring airlines to check bags for explosives _ either by machine, hand or bomb-sniffing dog, or by matching each piece of checked luggage to a passenger on board. As the travel day got into full swing, there were no immediate reports of major problems.
At the United Airlines check-in counter at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, an airline employee carried passengers' luggage to a new screening machine, temporarily set up outside the gate area. It was the first time the machine, installed a few days ago, was used. Two security workers and a police officer watched a computer screen as the bags went through.
Passenger Carlos Garcia, an analyst with the U.S. General Accounting Office who lives in California, said the entire procedure took him only 10 minutes.
``It was pretty easy so far,'' Garcia said. ``As the lines get longer during the day, we'll have to see how it goes.''
At Philadelphia International Airport, the morning flow of passengers through baggage check-in lines appeared to be close to normal early in the day.
At 7:30 a.m. about 30 travelers stood in the curbside check-in line at a US Airways terminal. More had complaints about the 30- degree temperature than any unusual delays.
``I didn't even know about this yesterday. If I had known, I would have left my house earlier,'' said Jill Hannagan, 44, a music teacher from Wilmington, Del., bound for Phoenix.
``I don't mind this at all. I'd much rather they be thorough, even if it takes a little longer. I just wish I had my hat.''
At tiny Atlantic City (N.J.) International Airport, Maureen Evans, 44, of Tampa, Fla., arrived at 6:30 a.m. for a 7:45 flight.
``I've been arriving early since Sept. 11 anytime I'm flying,'' she said, standing in line at the ticket counter. ``Of course it's a hassle,'' she said of the new screening. ``But it makes me feel more secure.''
Airport officials have said most airlines will use the bag-matching technique, which is designed to prevent someone from checking an explosives-laden bag and never boarding the plane. Critics have said that method would not stop a suicide bomber.
The Air Transport Association, a trade group representing major airlines, advised passengers to check airline Web sites for recommended airport arrival times, estimated wait times at check-in, identification requirements and baggage policies.
Still, the group said it did not expect serious delays.
``We're very hopeful we will not see chaos,'' said Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association.
Some airports were taking precautions just in case. In Philadelphia, workers were ready to dispense free food and soft drinks from carts in the event that passengers got stuck in intolerably long lines.
But ``from what we're hearing from the airlines, we really don't anticipate any problems,'' airport spokesman Mark Pesce said.
Under the new law, signed by President Bush in November, bags would be matched to passengers only on the first leg of a trip, not on connecting flights. Experts said that could help prevent lengthy delays.
But the provision was denounced by Democrats in Congress, among others. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said not matching bags on connecting flights amounts to ``an Achilles' heel in the security system.''
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.
The Bush administration, acknowledging that the transition to beefed-up security could be difficult, asked passengers to be patient.
``I'm not sure that anyone really has a crystal ball that can determine how long those delays will be, but I think today passengers are willing to accept a modicum of inconvenience given the safety and security of the air travel,'' Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said on CBS' ``The Early Show.''
``And I think in today's world, patience is a new form of patriotism,'' he said.