San Diego Union Tribune

August 6, 2007

Evolving TSA rules keep fliers guessing

Long list of banned items is constantly being updated


Your shampoo is in the checked luggage. Your zip-locked bag of eye drops and hand sanitizer is at the ready. The laptop is out, the shoes are off, the Diet Coke is tossed, and as you approach the grim-looking security guard on the other side of the metal detector, you are certain you've complied with every airport rule known to man.

But if your bags hold a thick chocolate bar, a stack of books or even some Pepto-Bismol, you may be the hapless traveler who unwittingly makes extra work for airport security – ultimately slowing down the screening process, costing taxpayers money for additional security and perhaps even holding up your flight.




The list of items that raise terrorist suspicions at the nation's airports is ever-evolving.

As recent airport incidents demonstrate, this can create consternation as benign items are included that few travelers – and in some cases even security officials – never dreamed would mimic a bomb or other terrorist tool.

“On some level, we are responding to whatever the last uproar was,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and author of “Americans at Risk.” “This has been the story of airline security since the beginning of air flight.”

Americans may have been puzzled to learn last month that ice packs and blocks of cheese – the first discovered in bags at San Diego's Lindbergh Field and the latter in bags at airports in Baltimore and Milwaukee – roused Transportation Security Administration suspicions.

Such items are not prohibited on commercial aircraft, but either their density or their unconventional packaging resembled materials used to make explosives.

“Even not-prohibited items can be a problem,” said Jennifer Peppin, spokeswoman for the TSA's West Coast region. “The density of certain items causes a problem.”

That includes fruitcakes, which are packed in checked bags in abundance during the holidays and often set off security alarms. It includes stacks of books because airport X-ray machines cannot see through them.

It includes thick chocolate bars, honey, Pepto-Bismol, maple syrup, large amounts of candy, thick-soled shoes and peanut butter.

“At one airport, I had one screener give me a suspicious look because there was a jar of jam in my checked luggage,” said Stephanie Wills of Tierrasanta, who flew out of Lindbergh last week. “All it was was homemade jam, but they asked me all kinds of questions about it.”

Harmless electronic devices can also pose problems. On July 26, a hand-held electronic game in checked luggage – it was a prototype of a new Mattel Inc. toy with exposed wiring – prompted the evacuation of a terminal at Long Beach Airport and delayed five arriving aircraft until firefighters, police and a bomb squad determined that the item was harmless.

Peppin's TSA colleagues tell her that while electric razors don't typically raise suspicions, a razor recently packed inside a shoe at Los Angeles International Airport prompted a call to the Los Angeles Police Department's bomb squad.

“The shaver by itself would not normally be an issue, but put inside the shoe raised a red flag,” Peppin said.

Although TSA spokesman Christopher White said that “we're not going to ban cheese and ice packs anytime soon,” the list of suspicious items is constantly evolving to reflect the encounters airport agents have with everyday items that – alone or packed unusually – can raise red flags.

For instance, it wasn't until Richard Reid used matches in an attempt to light explosives in his shoe on a plane in 2001 that the TSA banned lighters on board and required passengers to send their shoes through X-ray machines. The TSA, which had been confiscating about 22,000 lighters a day at the nation's airports, modified its rules yet again Saturday, allowing common lighters in carry-on bags because they “no longer pose a significant threat.”

Brian Jenkins, an expert on terrorism and domestic security with the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp., said many travelers feel frustrated by the evolving screening regulations. But the shifting rules keep would-be terrorists guessing about what they might get away with, Jenkins said.

“The more you can make the system unpredictable, the better off you are,” he said. “You always want a quantum of mystery built into these kinds of things.”

Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, however, believes security rules have led to screening “absurdities,” with harmless travelers feeling besieged and airline security costs increasing more than tenfold since 2000.

Last year, he said, TSA officials confiscated the baby doll bottle that Redlener's 3-year-old granddaughter was carrying while boarding a flight from New York to California. The bottle had too much water in it.

Redlener also witnessed an “anguished” mother pleading with TSA officials to allow her to bring a jar of baby food aboard. TSA officials refused, he said.

“It's that kind of over-the-top procedure that really unsettles the flying public and makes the whole procedure seem irrelevant and absurd,” Redlener said.

Although experts and the TSA cannot put a price tag on what it costs to investigate suspicious items that turn out to be harmless, it is clear it takes a toll on travelers and the airline industry.

In the Lindbergh case, there were internal TSA disputes over whether the ice packs were wrapped in duct tape and contained clay rather than conventional gel. Regardless, TSA officials took about three hours to clear the ice packs, which were in checked luggage that belonged to a woman in her 60s.

Jenkins, author of the 2006 book “Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves,” said the federal government needs to do a better job educating the public about the need for a dynamic and unpredictable screening system.

“The system is not being designed for the general public. It's designed for the bad guys,” Jenkins said.

He believes the TSA should randomly zero in on fewer passengers to speed screening and to keep adversaries guessing about the scope of airport security.

Phil Laurie of Chula Vista, who passed through Lindbergh last week on his way to Boston, agreed.

“Tight security is always a good thing these days, but I think TSA goes too far sometimes,” Laurie said. “Not everyone has to be inconvenienced all the time.”

Dana Wilkie: