Random Airport Security Checks Return in Time for Holiday Rush

Dec. 17--Random airport security checks return Thursday, as the Christmas travel rush takes off. But that's also the day security screeners loosen restrictions on what passengers can bring on a plane.

You'll no longer be forfeiting nail clippers and other small tools -- as long as they're not too big or deemed particularly dangerous. Yet you may be subject to a secondary screening, including an inspection of your shoes for explosives, additional "wanding," a pat-down search and manual bag inspection.

Random secondary screenings were dropped in 2003 because they were deemed too much of a hassle. But the Transportation Security Administration says they will now take only a minute or two and restore a measure of unpredictability that can frustrate terrorists.

Freed from having to confiscate small scissors and other unlikely weapons, screeners can concentrate on finding more dangerous items -- and people, the TSA says.

"This is an increase in security," TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said. "We are looking at risks and vulnerability and applying our resources to where we think the threats are the greatest."

The TSA won't disclose how frequently it will conduct random searches. Of course, some passengers will continue to get a second look just based on their behavior, travel patterns or presence on a watch list.

Some worry the new rules may slow lines at security checkpoints, at least initially.

The timing for implementing the new rules could have been better, they say. Around Christmas, there's the usual surge in infrequent and often befuddled travelers, especially harried moms and dads with kids in tow. And, of course, many passengers are packing gifts. If those gifts are wrapped and arouse suspicion, they must be unwrapped for inspection.

"It'll probably take a little longer," said Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based travel expert with cheapseats.com. "Instead of saying, 'You can't take those scissors, the pliers, the wrench,' they'll have to say, 'How long are your scissors? How long are your pliers? How long is your wrench?' "

Starting Thursday, passengers will be allowed through security checkpoints with scissors with blades less than 4 inches long and screwdrivers and other tools that are no more than 7 inches long.

Small scissors, screwdrivers and like items have accounted for about 25 percent of the prohibited items found in passenger carry-on bags. But they don't pose a real danger when it comes to taking control of an aircraft, the TSA believes.

The TSA says the random screenings will take about a minute or two, said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

"But it remains to be seen how that will impact the flow of travelers through security," he said.

A little common sense should go a long way toward speeding travelers through security, said Harmon, the TSA spokeswoman.

Sometimes travelers lack common sense. She recalled one passenger who tried to bring a can of gasoline on a flight. His car at his destination airport was out of gas, after all.

Generally, it has taken no more than 10 minutes to clear security at the Twin Cities airport, Hogan said -- much faster than most other airports.

Holiday travel is expected to be particularly busy from Dec. 23 through 30.

Most aircraft will have few, if any, empty seats and overhead luggage compartments will be packed. So travelers should adhere to the limits on carry-on bags.

Airport parking tends to be tightest Tuesday through Thursday.

Martin J. Moylan covers airlines and can be reached at mmoylan@pioneerpress or 651-228-5479.


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