By Del Quentin Wilber and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 11, 2006
Mass confusion at the nation's airports yesterday morning diminished by afternoon as passengers adjusted to security measures enacted in response to what police in Britain said was a terrorist plot targeting transatlantic flights.
Airlines reacted by canceling some flights and delaying others for less than an hour. By evening, most carriers were battling weather delays caused by thunderstorms over major cities, not security-related tie-ups.
Passengers could face heightened screening today, however. Federal security authorities last night said they were going to conduct extra screening at gates for flights bound for Britain. They also plan to conduct random inspections at gates for other flights, officials said. Local police, National Guard members or airport officials could be used to conduct some of the screenings.
Authorities said they had no choice but to increase security in response to the announcement by British police early yesterday that they had cracked a scheme to use liquid explosives to blow up airliners over the Atlantic Ocean.
Transportation Security Administration officials immediately boosted the terror alert for commercial air travel and banned liquids and gels from passengers' carry-on luggage. The prohibited items included shampoo, bottles of water, hair spray and sunblock.
"This was clearly an active plot, clearly going to be a massive devastating attack, and we just are not going to take any chances on that," TSA Administrator Kip Hawley said in an interview.
Under the heightened alert, TSA officers also began randomly screening passengers at gates, increased patrols by bomb-sniffing police dogs and took other undisclosed steps to secure airports, they said.
TSA officials said they did not know how long they would restrict the banned items.
"We are going to take our time to study it and defeat it," Hawley said.
The confusion and security lines caused air traffic disruptions in the morning and delays at most airports, airlines reported.
Most travel experts said they considered the traffic disruptions to be a blip for the industry, likening the flight delays to those caused by a bad thunderstorm over a hub airport.
Airline stocks fell early but recovered by the close of trading.
Some airline industry officials said they did not expect TSA to continue to ban liquids and gels once officials got a better handle on security threats. They said it would be impractical and inconvenient for passengers in the long run.
"We don't think, and the TSA doesn't think, this is going to be a permanent event," said James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association of America, which represents many U.S. airlines.
Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said he appreciated quick action and hoped better measures were put in place soon.
"If one week from today we're still having three-block-long security lines looking for toothpaste and everybody is the same threat, then they will have overdone it," Woerth said, adding that he was concerned that the government's first response to such incidents is to "paralyze the system."
"No system can survive if everyone is treated like Osama bin Laden himself," he said. "We need to move away from that kind of system. Is this forever, at every airport, everyday? We're going back to two-hour security lines and missed connections. What are we doing here?"
But others said TSA might not have a choice.
David M. Stone, the former TSA administrator, said federal authorities should consider banning such products until they can develop the technology to counter the explosives at checkpoints. Outside experts said current X-ray machines cannot differentiate between liquid explosives and shampoo, for example.
And some bomb-detection devices at check points do not always catch liquid explosives.
"The measures that were taken by the Department of Homeland Security to prohibit certain items need to be looked at until technology catches up," Stone said. "Those items need to be prohibited."
Airport officials said it might not matter if the ban continues because passengers reacted quickly to the new rules.
"You should see some improvements," said Charles Chambers, who heads security at Airports Council International-North America, which represents airports. "That's what we have historically seen . . . when people make their adjustments."