Now Boarding at BWI: Security With Hint of Calm

By Del Quentin Wilber and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Soothing blue lights. Light background noise. Brightly dressed employees who have been trained to create a "calmer environment."

A hip spa, right?

No. This is how top government officials imagine the airport security checkpoint of the future. In fact, the atmosphere is so calming that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday forgot to remove his shoes -- a major no-no -- while demonstrating the prototype checkpoint's screening process for reporters at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. (His top aviation security official took his shoes off.)

The new checkpoint, which includes an automated bin-return system and machines that can see through passengers' clothing, is part of an effort by Homeland Security officials to make airport security more efficient and easier on customers. Authorities also announced yesterday an initiative that they said will reduce hassles faced by travelers with names similar to those on a terrorist watch list.

Government officials have to "be willing to always look back at what we do and not assume that what we are doing is always the best way to do it," Chertoff said yesterday in front of what he called the "next-generation" checkpoint.

"We have to be willing to revisit it, break the mold and think outside the box," he added.

Chertoff said a major component of the government's effort to improve passengers' experiences was to help thousands of people with names similar to those of suspected terrorists. Those passengers often face hurdles in obtaining boarding passes and often must go through extra screening at checkpoints. Members of Congress and celebrities have been snagged by such incidents.

Airlines, which check passenger names against the list, will now be allowed to accept dates of birth from passengers to more thoroughly check information against the watch lists, Chertoff said. Once passengers have proven that they are not suspected terrorists, they will be able to print boarding passes at kiosks or at home, rather than going through a check-in line, Chertoff said.

Airline representatives said they were generally enthusiastic about the proposal, but some privacy advocates were skeptical the measure will work.

"They've been saying for the last five years that they have a mechanism for addressing these problems, and the problems apparently persist," said David Sobel, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It almost sounds as if they are now trying to pass the problem off to the airlines."

Sobel said passengers need "real assurance" that the data will not be widely disseminated or used in any other way. "We need to see some strict enforceable rules for the limited use of that information," he said.

After years of lackluster progress in revamping checkpoints, officials at the Transportation Security Administration said they hope travelers begin to notice some changes as soon as they reach the airport. Travelers have expressed frustration at having to remove shoes, take laptop computers out of bags and put liquids into small containers jammed into plastic bags.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company