Air Travelers Left Baffled, Frustrated By Sea-Tac Screening Process

Feb. 14, 2006
Sea-Tac has been through a series of temporary solutions that technically achieved Congress' mandate, but were far from secure.

At no time in aviation history have so many people been so interested in your underwear, curling irons or copies of Cosmopolitan magazine.

And who knew that a jar of peanut butter could be the invitation for a federal security agent to rifle through your belongings?

Even as airport security has increased over the past three years, many passengers feel less secure, at least when it comes to their belongings.

Travelers at Sea-Tac Airport watch as their luggage travels on a conveyor belt into a dark hole.

Beyond that hole, a labyrinth of conveyor belts more than five miles long and a variety of carousels and screening machines have added layers to the airport's security process, in turn taking away consumers' own baggage security.

Suitcase locks are routinely broken and removed. Boxes sealed with duct tape are sliced open. Items are damaged. And because bags pass through as many as a dozen sets of hands on the way from City A to City B, there's no telling who's to blame when things go missing.

Genny O'Neil of Seattle didn't care about security procedures until her bag was searched by the federal Transportation Security Administration for the first time in September.

She packs meticulously and was dismayed when she reopened her suitcase at her sister's home in Anaheim, Calif.

In addition to snipping her lock, TSA had left its calling card inside, and her clothing and personal items were unfolded and messy.

"I had to do a load (of laundry) for my underwear," she said, adding that she and her sister also went to the store to replace a box of tampons, because the idea of having agents handling her personal hygiene products was so disturbing.

"My brother-in-law was laughing at me, " she said.

Even after learning that TSA agents always wear gloves when searching baggage, "I don't care," O'Neil said. "I just don't like thinking about someone touching my things."

O'Neil had packed a fashion magazine, to separate her bras from her shoes, and the TSA agent involved might have been looking for that magazine.

The thick, glossy pages of some magazines mimic sheet explosives when put through the new screening machines, said John Della Jacono, deputy federal security director for TSA in charge of Sea-Tac.

The explosive detection system machines are minivan-sized imaging devices that are supposed to prevent terrorists from getting explosives onto airplanes. They cost about $1 million each, and operate like magnetic resonance imaging machines to take X-ray pictures from multiple angles.

But the cameras can't "see" through dense materials, such as peanut butter and cheese. And metal and cylindrical objects - a can of chili, for example - can seem like common explosive devices.

Because Sea-Tac, along with nearly every other airport in the United States, wasn't prepared for the massive security overhaul that has followed 9/11, the baggage screening system is a result of trial and error and has changed daily for the past three years, said Jeff Fitch, director of safety and security at Sea-Tac for the Port of Seattle, which operates the airport.

Congress mandated that the newly formed TSA begin screening all outbound baggage by Dec. 31, 2002. That deadline was extended a year, when it became apparent that federal authorities would not reach that goal.

Since then, Sea-Tac has been through a series of temporary solutions that technically achieved the mandate, but were far from secure.

Large EDS machines first were placed in the ticket lobby where travelers could see agents X-ray, then pick through, their bags. This created massive congestion, a security threat in itself, in Sea-Tac's narrow lobbies. The congestion also created hazards, and some passengers and airport workers were injured.

TSA then sprinkled smaller trace-detection machines, called ETDs, throughout the baggage sorting areas. These machines require agents to swab the bags and test the swabs for explosive residue.

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.

By that time, the Port of Seattle will have spent about $150 million - and added 12 miles of conveyor system - to run the in-line baggage operation.

The system is operational at the United Airlines section and the far south end, where Delta and Hawaiian are located. The next area to make the switch: C-60, which services Southwest.

"It turned out to be much, way, way, much more complicated than we envisioned," Fitch said.

P-I reporter Candace Heckman

can be reached at 206-448-8348

or [email protected].

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