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10 years later, TSA has redefined the air travel experience

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, at 11:20 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, July 7, 2014, at 9:26 a.m.

Ten years after the Transportation Security Administration redefined the air travel experience in Wichita and around the country, the list of items most frequently confiscated at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport is still topped by oversized bottles of liquid or gel.

But so much else has changed, said Keith Osborn, a federal security director for the TSA, which was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The TSA assumed control of Mid-Continent security 10 years ago this month. Over the course of the past decade, the TSA has screened more than 7.5 million passengers departing from Mid-Continent, checked 3.5 million bags and collected more than 36,000 pounds of forbidden items.

Nationwide, the TSA has 50,000 officers who screen roughly 1.7 million passengers a day in more than 450 airports.

The TSA began with two screening machines at Mid-Continent in 2002. Last month, it opened a fourth line to handle the airport’s increasing passenger volume.

“We need four lanes to be able to handle the flow and keep the wait down to a reasonable amount,” Osborn said. “With the fourth lane, it’s less likely that they’re going to get trapped in line.”

There were five instances last month where the wait time exceeded 10 minutes, Osborn said. Over the summer, he said, there were five instances where waits approached 30 minutes.

“That’s why we went to four lanes,” he said.

That’s just one of a number of modifications the TSA has made over time.

The TSA now employs behavior detection officers, who watch for suspicious behavior in passengers. If someone prompts suspicion, Osborn said, local law enforcement officers are alerted.

The officers are part of “a layered approach” to security at airports and on planes, Osbo-rn said.

“We’re moving away from a one-size-fits-all … to more of a risk-based approach,” Osborn said. “We’re looking at threats, and we’re modifying security procedures based on the threats.”

After two terrorists smuggled explosives onboard planes in their underwear, the TSA began conducting pat downs that many passengers thought were too invasive – particularly for children and the elderly. Websites were filled with examples of searches that infuriated travelers.

That led to changes.

Passengers 12 and under are no longer required to take off their shoes and can keep on their coats or other outer garments, Osborn said. Similar accommodations have been made for those 75 and older.

“We realize terrorists are not likely to be in that age group,” he said.

TSA agents used to confiscate all scissors – even cuticle scissors. Now, scissors less than 4 inches in length are allowed in carry-on luggage. Tools less than 7 inches long – such as pliers or small wrenches – are now permitted as well.

Knives and blades are still banned, however.

New technologies have led to more sophisticated screening machines, Osborn said. That keeps lines moving.

TSA officials are currently researching technologies that would allow the same device to confirm IDs and boarding passes, Osborn said. It’s a step that could save considerable time during busy periods.

Passengers are much more aware these days about what’s allowed – and what’s not, said Mark Reed, a supervising official for TSA.

“They try to find correct information before they even fly,” Reed said. “For the most part, they do a pretty good job – a much better job” than in the early years of the TSA.

Carl Koster of Cheney, who flies frequently for his job as a cameraman for NFL Films, said he has noticed the changes in airport security over the years.

“Things are a lot better now,” Koster said as he recently waited for a flight to St. Louis. “I still wish they’d figure out something so we wouldn’t have to take off our shoes.”

That step is on its way, Osborn said.

Pre-check programs for approved passengers on five airlines are now being used in more than 25 airports around the country, with seven more airports to be added soon, according to Carrie Harmon, a regional public affairs manager for the TSA.

Passengers apply for acceptance into the program. In exchange for providing additional information about themselves, they go through an expedited screening process – which includes not having to remove their shoes.

The program figures to appeal most to frequent fliers, Osborn said. Wichita should one day be added to the list of airports offering the pre-check service, he said, though no timetable has been established.

Although the TSA has drawn plenty of criticism over the years from frustrated travelers, TSA officer Sheila Teal said she routinely hears something else.

“So many people say they really appreciate what we’re doing,” Teal said. “And if it wasn’t for us, many of them wouldn’t want to fly.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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