Air Travelers Left Baffled, Frustrated By Sea-Tac Screening Process

Sea-Tac has been through a series of temporary solutions that technically achieved Congress' mandate, but were far from secure.

At no time in aviation history have so many people been so interested in your underwear, curling irons or copies of Cosmopolitan magazine.

And who knew that a jar of peanut butter could be the invitation for a federal security agent to rifle through your belongings?

Even as airport security has increased over the past three years, many passengers feel less secure, at least when it comes to their belongings.

Travelers at Sea-Tac Airport watch as their luggage travels on a conveyor belt into a dark hole.

Beyond that hole, a labyrinth of conveyor belts more than five miles long and a variety of carousels and screening machines have added layers to the airport's security process, in turn taking away consumers' own baggage security.

Suitcase locks are routinely broken and removed. Boxes sealed with duct tape are sliced open. Items are damaged. And because bags pass through as many as a dozen sets of hands on the way from City A to City B, there's no telling who's to blame when things go missing.

Genny O'Neil of Seattle didn't care about security procedures until her bag was searched by the federal Transportation Security Administration for the first time in September.

She packs meticulously and was dismayed when she reopened her suitcase at her sister's home in Anaheim, Calif.

In addition to snipping her lock, TSA had left its calling card inside, and her clothing and personal items were unfolded and messy.

"I had to do a load (of laundry) for my underwear," she said, adding that she and her sister also went to the store to replace a box of tampons, because the idea of having agents handling her personal hygiene products was so disturbing.

"My brother-in-law was laughing at me, " she said.

Even after learning that TSA agents always wear gloves when searching baggage, "I don't care," O'Neil said. "I just don't like thinking about someone touching my things."

O'Neil had packed a fashion magazine, to separate her bras from her shoes, and the TSA agent involved might have been looking for that magazine.

The thick, glossy pages of some magazines mimic sheet explosives when put through the new screening machines, said John Della Jacono, deputy federal security director for TSA in charge of Sea-Tac.

The explosive detection system machines are minivan-sized imaging devices that are supposed to prevent terrorists from getting explosives onto airplanes. They cost about $1 million each, and operate like magnetic resonance imaging machines to take X-ray pictures from multiple angles.

But the cameras can't "see" through dense materials, such as peanut butter and cheese. And metal and cylindrical objects - a can of chili, for example - can seem like common explosive devices.

Because Sea-Tac, along with nearly every other airport in the United States, wasn't prepared for the massive security overhaul that has followed 9/11, the baggage screening system is a result of trial and error and has changed daily for the past three years, said Jeff Fitch, director of safety and security at Sea-Tac for the Port of Seattle, which operates the airport.

Congress mandated that the newly formed TSA begin screening all outbound baggage by Dec. 31, 2002. That deadline was extended a year, when it became apparent that federal authorities would not reach that goal.

Since then, Sea-Tac has been through a series of temporary solutions that technically achieved the mandate, but were far from secure.

Large EDS machines first were placed in the ticket lobby where travelers could see agents X-ray, then pick through, their bags. This created massive congestion, a security threat in itself, in Sea-Tac's narrow lobbies. The congestion also created hazards, and some passengers and airport workers were injured.

TSA then sprinkled smaller trace-detection machines, called ETDs, throughout the baggage sorting areas. These machines require agents to swab the bags and test the swabs for explosive residue.

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