Even in the post-9/11 age of take-your-shoes-off air travel, people arrive for their flights in Gulfport toting the darndest things: firecrackers and frying pans, ammunition clips and stun guns, and knives, knives, knives.
Regulations allow some hefty federal fines, $250 to $10,000, for those who attempt to board with prohibited items. But this rarely happens at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
A recent Wall Street Journal study showed the airport is among the nation's lowest 10 in number of federal fines issued, with only one since airport security became federalized about three years ago. Passengers at other, similar-sized airports issued far more fines. Jackson International Airport, for example, saw 27 passengers fined in 2004.
Federal guidelines allow much latitude for local security directors on whether they recommend fines to Washington. This has drawn some criticism from those who believe the system should be more standardized.
Pat Baroco, federal Transportation Security Administration director for the Gulfport-Biloxi airport, said there are numerous reasons it is low on the fine list. But lax security or enforcement is not among them, he said. In fact, the airport's security is considered among the top, because it was selected as a test site, thanks in part to our powerful U.S. Senate delegation, for high-tech security devices. The airport was among the first to receive a machine that can "sniff" passengers for explosives and machines to scan checked luggage.
"I think I would be more concerned if we had lots of fines here," said Baroco, a retired FBI agent with a counter-terrorism background who oversees a staff of nearly 70 security screeners.
Baroco and airport spokesman Ken Spirito said Gulfport-Biloxi's dearth of federal fines is due in part to local law enforcement. They said the Gulfport Police Department, which keeps two to three officers at the airport at all times, responds quickly to any difficulties, and has prosecuted problem passengers or those who are carrying illegal items through the local courts. TSA in Washington, which makes the final call on federal fines, takes into account whether someone is being punished locally, and often chooses to let it go at that.
Baroco said the only fine issued from Washington for a Gulfport-Biloxi passenger was someone trying to carry a gun onboard. This, he said, would always result in his recommending a fine. He has also recently recommended a fine for a passenger carrying a switchblade knife. But because switchblades are illegal in Mississippi, that passenger is being prosecuted locally as well, and Baroco said TSA Washington might let the locals handle it.
Baroco said Gulfport-Biloxi's low fine rate is also based on something of an X factor, of which he has some theories.
The airport generally caters to an older, casino-bound crowd, that Baroco surmises is less apt to be carrying weapons.
"I was at one airport conference, and someone from a similar-sized place said he had four firearms in a week," Baroco said. "I said, 'We've only had one in three years.' Basically, we are lucky here. We take up a ton of prohibited items trying to go through the checkpoint, but we seldom have anything that would reach a level of a fine."
Baroco said he and his agents use some common sense when dealing with passengers with prohibited items. An elderly woman who forgot she had a small Swiss Army-style pocket knife in her purse would be told to either forfeit the knife, give it to someone seeing her off, go put it in her car, or use one of the self-mailers available at the airport to mail it home. But a large man concealing a big hunting knife might have to chat with police officers and be subject to a criminal background check. Anyone who has been flagged previously with a prohibited item would also undergo more scrutiny.
Airport security is a balancing act, Baroco said.
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