Air Travelers Face Return of Random Searches

Just in time for the holiday rush, airline passengers will once again be subject to random secondary security searches, including "pat-downs," starting Dec. 22.

That means some folks will be pulled aside for another going-over after they already pass through a metal detector and their carry-on bags are inspected at airport security checkpoints. That going-over, too, is being revamped.

On the same day, the restrictions loosen for what passengers can carry on the airplanes. Back in: scissors with blades less than 4 inches and screwdrivers and other tools that are 7 inches or less.

The changes will enhance safety, security officials say, because they'll take the predictability out of searches and reduce the time security workers spend searching bags for small scissors so they can focus on more-dangerous items.

Some passengers are concerned it will all add up to much longer lines and confusion.

"Whether you were a frequent flier or a potential terrorist, you knew what to expect,'' said Kip Hawley, Transportation Security Administration assistant secretary. "With the changes we are implementing later this month, that predictability will be gone."

Screening procedures will be easy for passengers to navigate, he said, but difficult for terrorists to manipulate.

The TSA won't say what percentage of passengers will get the random checks. They now can face extra screening because of actions such as buying a one-way ticket with cash or refusing to remove shoes at checkpoints.

Random secondary screenings were dropped in 2003 because they were deemed too much of a hassle. But the TSA says they will now take only a minute or two.

They may include a screening of shoes for explosives, additional "wanding," "enhanced" pat-down searches and bag inspections.

In the past, TSA protocol called for a pat-down of the entire back and the front of the torso around the stomach. The new pat-downs will include arms and legs to improve the odds of detecting nonmetal weapons and explosives.

As is the case now, security officers will only pat-down passengers of the same sex and passengers may request privacy.

Doug Kapsa, a frequent business traveler who works for FasTest Inc. of St. Paul, doubts the changes won't add up to delays. "I'm not buying that,'' he said. "It'll slow things down."

Like some 2,400 other fellow travelers, Kapsa was enrolled in a "registered traveler" program that sped him through security checks at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The program ended about a month ago. "I could arrive at the airport and be through security in two minutes,'' said Kapsa.

Minneapolis-St. Paul airport officials hope the random searches will strengthen security without significantly slowing checkpoint screening, said spokesman Patrick Hogan.

The smaller scissors, screwdrivers and other items no longer banned from airplanes Dec. 22 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, said Hawley, the TSA official.

"I am convinced that the time now spent searching bags for small scissors and tools can be better utilized to focus on the far more dangerous threat of explosives,'' he said.

Northwest Airlines, the Twin Cities dominant carrier, deferred comment on the new standards to its industry trade group, the Air Transport Association, which noted airlines support the change.

But David Castelveter, a spokesman for rival ATA Airlines, said, "If it took two more minutes of my time to ensure the safety of the plane I'm flying on, I'd be totally agreeable."

Bloomberg News contributed to this story. Martin J. Moylan covers airlines and can be reached at 651-228-5479 or mmoylan@pioneerpress.

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