Transportation Department aims to get airline passengers past security in 10 minutes

Tuesday, November 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta wants to whisk airline passengers past security checkpoints in 10 minutes or less.

As the Transportation Department prepares to take over passenger and cargo screening at the nation's airports, Mineta said he wants to avoid long waits.

``Our goal in passenger screening is no weapons, no waiting,'' Mineta said Tuesday. ``We will strive to develop a screening process that prohibits weapons or other banned materials ... without requiring a waiting period of longer than 10 minutes.''

Mineta also said the department wants to screen air cargo without delaying a plane's departure and plans to have several thousand air marshals on flights by June 1.

He said, however, he does not expect to meet the new aviation security law's 60-day deadline to devise a system for screening all checked baggage. He said there were too few employees, bomb-sniffing dogs or explosive-detection machines to do that.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, passengers have been asked to arrive at airports two hours before flight times, and some have endured waits of an hour or more at security checkpoints.

``We have to make this a convenient process,'' said Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association, the major airlines' trade group. ``The key is to have enough screeners and enough screening equipment to get them through.''

Passengers said they would like to get through quickly as long as security is not sacrificed.

``As long as it's a good check, I don't mind waiting,'' said Wydell Wilson of Washington, flying out of Reagan National Airport on Tuesday. ``But if they could get it to 10 minutes without sacrificing security then by all means, go for it.''

Another passenger, John Mackethan of Washington, said he would love to avoid long waits with a 1-year-old in tow. ``Not having to show up two hours before would definitely help with a child,'' he said.

A more immediate dilemma for Mineta is the new law's requirement to develop within 60 days a screening system for all checked baggage. He said he may have to tell lawmakers he can't do it.

Every method used to inspect luggage _ explosive-detection machines, bomb-sniffing dogs, body searches and ensuring a bag's owner boards an airplane that carries the luggage _ can't get the job done in time, he said.

``The question about bomb-detection equipment is probably the most vexing and serious one we're facing,'' Mineta said.

Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation, said he wasn't surprised the department probably won't meet the deadline.

``It has to be realistic, and it also has to be flexible. That didn't meet the test,'' said Mica, R-Fla.

While acknowledging the problems, the administration will try to meet the timetable, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

``It's going to be very difficult,'' Fleischer said. ``And the secretary has a variety of means available to him. ... Congress gave a very tight 60-day deadline, and the administration is going to do everything it possibly can to comply with it.''

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., told Mineta to use National Guard troops at airports to help inspect luggage. ``The American people can't wait another few months before we begin screening all checked baggage for bombs,'' he said.

The airline industry, which currently oversees security, is trying to meet the deadline, Hallett said.

``We're pulling out all the stops to make it work,'' Hallett said. ``We believe we must do it because the law requires us to do it.''

The law also requires that by Dec. 31, 2002, a system must be in place to send all checked bags through explosive-detection machines. Airports do not now have enough machines to search all bags, Mineta said, and he is asking the companies that build the machines to speed up production.

He also said he is talking to companies that use similar technology, such as General Electric and other manufacturers of CT scans, to see whether they can build equipment to screen luggage for bombs.