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.

Because every bag must be screened, this system required many more agents, and much of the screening at peak travel times was spotty because of the intensive labor required, officials said.

The swabbing and handling of so much baggage increased on-the-job injuries because of excessive lifting and hauling, said airport spokesman Bob Parker.

And because there wasn't enough room in the main sorting areas to hold all the needed machines, some luggage ended up being screened in unsupervised private offices, he said.

TSA assures the public through its Web site that most baggage screening is done in public and under video surveillance. But there is no video surveillance of baggage screening in the Sea-Tac sorting area.

"I've had a lot of friends tell me `flier beware,'" said Kristine Wells, who lost about $120 in jewelry on a trip to Las Vegas in November. "I understand they're doing all they can to keep everyone and everything safe, but consumer confidence in the airlines is atrocious."

Wells, of Seattle, did not have a TSA card in her luggage, indicating that it had been opened and inspected, and has no idea who or how someone could have taken the jewelry, which she packed in a small nondescript bag.

It's the mystery of the screening process that frustrates passengers such as Aracelli Rose, a frequent traveler whose suitcase was missing a new video camcorder filled with photos of her newborn after an America West flight this fall.

TSA had searched Rose's bag and left a card during a trip in September. When the Seattle woman called the agency to make a claim, a customer service representative told her that screeners might have misplaced the item or forgotten to put it back in the suitcase.

It might be easy for items to be misplaced, especially because of overstuffed bags, said Jennifer Marty, TSA's northwest regional spokeswoman. "When TSA opens it, everything pops out like a jack-in-the-box," she said, adding that some bags spring open before reaching the screening area in the bag well, strewing clothes and personal effects across the conveyor belt.

But Rose said that because she travels frequently, she also travels light, and knows how to properly pack her things.

Rose's husband, who was flying around the same time she was, except on American Airlines, had a camcorder bag filled with medical equipment taken from his luggage. None of the equipment owned by either of the couple has been found.

"There's just too much coincidence," Rose said, saying she thinks the items were pilfered, rather than "misplaced."

There is no way of knowing where in the process the items went missing, said Tracy McConkey, TSA's customer support manager for Sea-Tac.

"It's very easy now to look at the big federal agency and say, `Bam, it's TSA,'" McConkey said. "Some people check in five hours ahead, and their bags are just sitting there in a cart."

Airlines used to take most of the responsibility for missing and damaged items. Now, many claims are passed along to the government.

McConkey said that just a few months ago, she and her colleagues tracked down a few airline employees who were giving TSA screening cards to passengers complaining about missing and damaged items. The cards tell consumers to call TSA toll-free to report any baggage trouble. TSA leaves the cards in bags it searches, so anyone with a card can prove that TSA handled their belongings.

McConkey said she didn't think the employees were being malicious, but they might have caused the agency to incur more claims than it was responsible for.

"It's not like we want to search these bags," Della Jacono said. "We'd rather just look at it through the computer screen and clear it."

The TSA favors "in-line" security systems, where bags on a conveyor belt travel to an EDS screening machine, then to the baggage handlers, who put them on the plane.

Under such a system, TSA agents would have to open fewer than 10 percent of passengers' bags, Della Jacono said.

Sea-Tac is now a third of the way to installing an in-line screening system. The port expects to finish the system, using more than 25 of the machines, by the end of next year, Fitch said.

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