Carry-on coffee in, security questions may be out at airports


Friday, August 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ Airline passengers soon may be able to board a plane without being asked whether they have kept a close watch on their bags. And starting right away, they can take drinks through security checkpoints.

The Transportation Security Administration, created after Sept. 11 to oversee airport security, is seeking ways to make travel less onerous. Among the considerations is getting rid of the questions, says agency chief James Loy.

``A review is under way,'' Loy said Thursday at a news conference in San Francisco. He said it was part of an examination of a larger body of regulations and that a decision would not take long.

For the past 16 years, ticket agents have been required to ask passengers two security questions: ``Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry an item on this flight?'' and ``Have any of the items you are traveling with been out of your immediate control since the time you packed them?''

There is no hard evidence the queries have prevented a hijacking or bombing. Many passengers question the value of the questions.

The Air Transport Association, which represents big airlines, would welcome the change, spokesman Michael Wascom said.

``All passengers do not pose equal security threats,'' Wascom said. ``Why should we continue to ask these simple questions of everyone? We should be focusing on people who are higher security risks.''

Loy, who took over last month, said the agency wants to balance customer service and security. He announced Thursday that passengers will be allowed to carry drinks in paper or foam cups through metal detectors.

Until now, the policy has varied from airport to airport, Wascom said. ``Today's announcement reflects a more commonsense approach that TSA is undertaking,'' he said.

The policy requires plastic, glass, metal and ceramic containers to be sealed and put through the X-ray screening machine. An open can of soda will not be allowed through a checkpoint, but a bottle of soda with a sealable top will.

Screeners are forbidden to ask passengers to eat food or drink a drink as part of a security procedure. The policy was changed on June 24 after a woman said a security guard at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport forced her to drink from three bottles of her own breast milk to demonstrate the liquid posed no threat to other passengers.

Billie Vincent, a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief, said the U.S. requirement that passengers be questioned originally included five or six questions written 16 years ago after two incidents in Europe involving men who deceived their girlfriends into carrying explosives onto planes.

In 1986, a security guard for the Israeli airline El Al questioned a pregnant Irish woman at London's Heathrow Airport and discovered her Jordanian fiancee had duped her into carrying a bomb onto an Israeli jet.

``What was started as very meaningful became essentially irrelevant,'' Vincent said. In the United States, the questions were reduced to two and people were never trained to interrogate passengers properly, he said.

A trained interrogator would ask some simple questions while looking for reasons to ask further questions, such as shiftiness or conflicting responses, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.

``El Al still asks those questions, but it's still part of a larger process where they're interrogating passengers, which is what we need to do in this country,'' he said.