U.S. airport security irks, but passengers cope

CHICAGO Wed Dec 30, 2009 5:17pm EST

A passenger holding her baby prepares to go through a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport December 29, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

A passenger holding her baby prepares to go through a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport December 29, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - First it was pocket knives and nail clippers. Then it was shoes. Then liquids. Now the government may want a closer look at your underwear after a botched attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

While air travelers generally accept such scrutiny checks as necessary to ensure safe flights, many transportation experts wonder if some of the steps are as effective at stopping terrorists as they are at annoying passengers.

Tewodros Habte-Gabr, 41, a development consultant in Los Angeles, said he was selected for additional screening before a flight from Detroit on Tuesday. He said the scrutiny was unpleasant, "but you have to be cautious."

Airline consultant Doug Abbey said many flyers are confused by the frequently-changing security requirements since the 9/11 hijack attacks.

"This is just an incremental insult to the entire travel experience but one that I think people are used to," Abbey said of the foiled plot by a passenger to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit.

The accused attacker, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Islamic militant from Nigeria, is charged with trying to ignite explosives sewn into his underwear.

Passengers and crew subdued Abdulmutallab, who claims to have been trained by al Qaeda in Yemen. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama blamed "human and systemic failures" for allowing the botched attack.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has ordered additional security measures on international flights to the United States. Steps may include increased gate screening, pat-downs and bag searches. Additionally, pilots may require passengers to remain seated for portions of the flight and to stow personal items.

Habte-Gabr said the additional screening was the most thorough he has experienced. "That's the closest pat-down I've gone through."

The incident has generated new interest in full-body scanners that airport security officers can use to see what travelers may have hidden in their clothes.

Such scanners have raised health and privacy concerns, and some experts believe large-scale use of the machines and other scanning gear would not necessarily bolster airport security.

"Instead of looking for bad things -- nail clippers and rogue bottles of shampoo --, security systems need to focus on finding bad people. Adding new hardware to an old system will not deliver the results we need," said Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents 230 airlines.

"IATA is recommending a smaller percentage of intensive pat downs accompanied by technologies or proportionate screening procedures as a means to achieve near-term security requirements with reduced delays," Bisignani said in a statement.

ECHOS OF THE PAST

The Christmas Day incident and the subsequent security measures echo past botched attacks that led to aggressive shoe screening and restrictions on the amount of liquids passengers may take on a flight.

Some travelers and experts question the effectiveness of such rules, especially when security breaches continue to happen either intentionally or unintentionally.

One Reuters reporter flying from Austin, Texas, to Washington D.C. on a US Airways flight on Sunday inadvertently got through airport security with a bag containing a Swiss army knife, a package of razors, matches and a lighter. Security oversights like these spotlight flaws in airport screening.

Christine Battista, a civil engineer from Carlisle, Massachusetts, flew to Washington D.C. on Monday with her husband and two children and said the security lines flowed quickly.

"I think the precautions they take normally are enough," anything more on domestic routes would be "overkill," Battista said.

David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association trade group, said travelers seem most tolerant of inconvenient security measures immediately after a headline-grabbing security breach.

"When the memory of the event is no longer fresh, then the measures become an inconvenience and not a necessity," Castelveter said. "It's incumbent on us to continue to reinforce to customers that this is being done for the safety of the passengers and our crews."

He noted that the TSA has relaxed some of the more tedious restrictions on carry-on items imposed in the days after 9/11 and that steps are ongoing to ease the hassle for travelers.

"If you remember what it was like post 9/11, then take a look at it now. You generally get through that process pretty quick," Castelveter said.

(Reporting by Kyle Peterson; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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