August 6, 2007
Evolving TSA rules keep fliers guessing
Long list of banned items is constantly being updated
By Dana Wilkie
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
and Steve Schmidt
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
“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
“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,
“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
“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.”