An unruly passenger caused a Washington-bound United Airlines flight to be diverted to Boston on Wednesday, raising already heightened tensions about aviation security.
After hours of live TV pictures of security officers with dogs searching the plane and passengers' luggage spread across the tarmac, the Department of Homeland Security announced the incident had no apparent links to terrorism.
But the jittery week since British police began arresting two dozen suspects in an alleged plot to blow up U.S. airliners has brought an accelerated drive to add additional layers of protection for airports and flights. The goal, said officials and experts, is to make sure that if one defense fails, another can still detect threats.
"We realize our [airport passenger] checkpoint is not a silver bullet," said Darrin Kayser, spokesman for the Transportation Safety Administration. "That's why we make sure we have another layer and another layer" of security.
It all adds to costs for airlines and delays for travelers, but the airlines have been quick to express their tersely worded support for new safeguards.
AirTran Airways Vice President Tad Hutcheson said his airline is "fully cooperating with TSA" security measures.
"We follow their rules," said Delta Air Lines spokeswoman Gina Laughlin. "Delta is implementing the security procedures that are set by the TSA."
Among new measures:
Sniffing out threats
More bomb-sniffing dog teams have been dispatched to airports and all passengers are now required to remove their shoes for X-ray scanning. In addition, most liquids and gels are banned from carry-on luggage and the TSA has set up detection portals --- the Explosives Trace Detection System --- at 36 airports that blow a puff of air on passengers as they pass through to test for traces of explosives. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is scheduled to have the technology soon, TSA spokesman Christopher White said.
A select number of airports, led by Boston's Logan International, train airport police to observe behavior of the public and to question people who appear to be acting suspiciously. TSA officials said others also use the SPOT (screening passengers by observation technique) system, but they declined to name the airports. Security workers also are using new computer software to test their detection skills by flashing images of the latest types of guns and bomb parts as they conduct their normal checkpoint duties.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday that airliners heading to the United States from Britain, at least for now, will not be allowed to take off until they have sent their passenger list to U.S. authorities to check against "no-fly" and terrorist watch lists. Homeland Security is seeking a regulation to require all overseas flights to send their passenger manifests in advance of departure to the United States.
In a few cities, including Denver, Dallas, Tampa and Jacksonville, some checked baggage is moved by conveyor belts to a secure area for screening, outside the public viewing area. That method, urged by security experts, is also about to begin at Hartsfield-Jackson, where the new North Terminal baggage security checks started operating in July and the South Terminal system is being tested.
* Backscatter technology, a kind of low-level X-ray that can see through clothing to detect dangerous items, is considered a promising improvement for airport checkpoints. The method remains in research phase, largely because of privacy concerns.
* A computerized device developed by Suspect Detections Systems Ltd., an Israeli company, attempts to judge whether a passenger has "hostile intentions." The device, which asks passengers a series of questions and checks responses much like a lie detector, has been tested at the Knoxville airport.
* Technologies for screening air cargo such as U.S. mail is now being tested at the San Francisco airport. TSA officials decline to say what percentage of cargo is now screened, although critics have said it is currently only a small amount.
Prevention: The ultimate solution
The most valuable advance is probably in prevention efforts by intelligence agencies, said R. William Johnstone, who served on the staff of the 9/11 commission and who recently authored the book "9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security."
"The best thing of all is to catch them in the first layer --- before they enter the aviation system," Johnstone. "It's better if a plot can be foiled before it enters aviation security."
AJC staff writer Russell Grantham in Atlanta and The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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