With a ban imposed this year on lighters aboard planes, the number of items taken from passengers at Los Angeles International and Bob Hope airports has skyrocketed, statistics show, igniting the debate about what screeners should confiscate.
Bob Hope Airport saw a more than 650 percent increase in items taken, from 8,448 in 2002 to 60,390 in roughly the first 10 months of 2005. LAX saw a 2,632 percent increase - 21,419 in 2002 to 585,195 so far this year.
Officials attribute the spike to lighters, added to the list of prohibited carry-on items in April thanks to would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid.
``A lot of people, despite all the emphasis placed on security, continue to be absent-minded or oblivious to that function,'' said Victor Gill, Bob Hope Airport's spokesman. ``They have things in their possession that they use every day - like a cigarette lighter - and they simply forget to remove those on a day when they're traveling. That's why you need the security checkpoint in the first place. If you don't check them, then these things will get through.''
But U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, questions whether collecting a ridiculous amount of lighters and other seemingly less dangerous items is the best use of resources. He'd like to see the lion's share of attention focused on screening for explosives.
``I'm much more concerned about someone smuggling a bomb into a cargo hold of a plane or into a carry-on ... than I am with someone's nail clippers or nail file,'' Schiff said. ``It makes little sense to make passengers take off their shoes when you can ship a crate the size of a piano that no one will ever open.''
The federal Transportation Security Administration, which oversees screeners at the nation's 450 airports, has worked over the last few years to improve training and technology to spot threats, but there's still work to do, said Billie Vincent, a national airport security expert.
``How many objects do you know that you missed?'' said Vincent, the president and chief executive officer of Aerospace Services International Inc. of Virginia and a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief. ``You don't know. How do you measure performance?''
The TSA was set up after Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida hijackers sneaked box cutters through airport security and onto planes.
Before 9-11, airport security was handled by private companies contracted by the airlines. But the TSA federalized screeners and was brought under the control of the Department of Homeland Security.
With a budget of $5 billion, it deployed 45,000 screeners, added high- tech X-ray and other detection devices, secured cockpits, armed some pilots and put plainclothes air marshals on flights.
Also, the TSA developed a list of weapons and other ``prohibited items,'' including knives, scissors and tools. Since then, the list has changed depending on intelligence gathered worldwide, officials said.
Today, the TSA is considering lifting bans on some objects - like small knives - in part to speed passenger flow through airports, thereby setting inspectors' sights on more dangerous threats.
``It's a real struggle to balance the needs of the customers and the needs of security,'' said Shannon Garcia-Hamilton, the head of TSA at Bob Hope Airport. ``If we can take off some of the less-threatening items and use resources in more important ways, then we've improved the process.''
Schiff supports the idea.
``If we can free up resources to secure us against bombs by taking these other items off the list, then we should do it,'' he said.
Across the country, TSA screeners are posted on 30-minute shifts at X-ray machines. They watch endless conveyors of bags stuffed with clothes, shoes, makeup, wallets and other items, while trying to spot sharp and dangerous objects in the mix.
Like searching for a needle in a haystack, they are also required to look for ``improvised explosive devices'' - makeshift bombs - or anything else that might resemble a bomb.
``The threshold is that, if you're looking at it and you don't know what it is, if you can't recognize the everyday, ordinary object, then you call for someone to check the bag,'' Garcia-Hamilton said. ``When they look at a screen, they can point out objects that, to you or I, we could not tell.
``But it's not 100 percent foolproof. There is a human factor.''
TSA has been testing its employees. In undercover stings, officials pack bags full of travel items, and suspicious ones, and put them through security to see whether the screeners can spot them. While Garcia-Hamilton said her team is doing well on tests, a May report by the federal General Accounting Office said weaknesses and vulnerabilities remain at all American airports.
``While these test results are an indicator of performance, they cannot solely be used as a comprehensive measure of any airport's screening performance or any individual screener's performance,'' according to the report, which recommended stricter controls for monitoring the completion of training.
Meanwhile, airports are filled with travelers carrying on all kinds of stuff. Among the more unusual items collected recently at Bob Hope - a cattle prod, a stun gun, numchucks, inert grenades, a sword concealed in a cane, a dagger and a belt-buckle knife.
Usually, passengers will surrender lighters, cuticle scissors and other small items without a problem. But passengers caught carrying knives and guns or who try to conceal other prohibited items can face fines or arrest.
``Most folks don't really have any ill intent,'' Garcia-Hamilton said. ``Most of it is, 'I forgot it was in there,' or 'I didn't know it was in there.'''
Lighters, which make up the bulk of the items - 28,932 so far this year at Bob Hope and 350,342 at LAX - were added to the list of prohibited items on April 14.
They were banned years after would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid in December 2001 tried to use matches mid-flight to light plastic explosives in his shoes. Reid was sentenced to life in prison in 2003. His actions spurred the TSA to search passengers' shoes.
At Bob Hope Airport on Thursday, Vanessa O'Neill, 28, of Ventura was stopped at security because TSA screeners noticed she had a lighter in her purse.
``I totally forgot that was in there,'' she said as a TSA supervisor informed her it wasn't permitted on the plane. She was on her way to New York for a wedding and surrendered the lighter - engraved with dolphins - with no questions asked, saying, ``It's not like I can't find another lighter with dolphins on it.''
Jason Kandel, (818) 546-3306
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