Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Air Security Observations

As you may know by now, Mrs. Lawhawk and I took a roundtrip flight from New York's JFK Airport to Salt Lake City this past week, and my experience was both routine and interesting all at the same time.

The security at JFK was noticably increased. National Guardsmen were patrolling the airport grounds, complete with body armor and automatic weapons. There were far more Port Authority Police patrolling the AirTrain and other facilities. And that was before we even got to the terminal to check in.

Since we packed our bags knowing that there was a ban on liquids and other items in our carry-on luggage, we didn't have to make any changes or toss out those items at the airport. While we got to the airport early anticipating long lines or other problems in checking in due to the increased restrictions, we flew through the checkpoint without delay. Indeed, we didn't notice anyone else having that problem either as there were no delays at the checkpoint. The screeners did their usual job and we flew through the security checkpoint at JFK within a few minutes after checking our identification.

The experience at Salt Lake City, on the other hand, was a study in contrasts. The airport used sniffer screening equipment. That's the special equipment that blows puffs of air and then studies it for compounds that might be used in explosives, and was used in conjunction with the routine x-ray detectors. That equipment was dialed all the way up, as the security guard mentioned as I had to take off my belt to get passed through. They also did a hand check of my carry-on luggage because it was tightly packed and the screeners couldn't make out everything in my bags. I didn't mind this, and I've come to expect a hand search on at least one leg of each of my trips.

The thing that surprised me was that there was no secondary check of identification at SLC when boarding our plane. Not only did no one check to see whether we were carrying on board the prohibited liquids as per the TSA requirements, but we didn't have to show ID to the boarding agent. That was quite strange, and disturbing.

Mrs. Lawhawk thought that JFK should have the sniffer equipment in addition to the standard detectors, and I agree. Those two scanners used in conjunction do a better job of scanning for prohibited items and explosives than either used alone. One reason that this additional scanning equipment hasn't been installed at JFK could be cost and who will pay for the scanners' installation and operation. Another is the lack of space needed to operate the two scanners in tandem.

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