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Airline passengers call reinstituted random gate checks too intrusive

Show your ID. Take off those shoes. Run your laptop and carry-on bag through the X-ray machine. Set off the metal detector, and an officer waves an electronic wand across your body or pats you down like a criminal.

Isn't that enough scrutiny for a lousy airline flight?

Apparently not. Last week brought news that federal officers are occasionally selecting passengers at random for additional screening as they wait to board planes at the gate. The move has some frequent fliers fuming.

Uniformed Transportation Security Administration officers ask travelers to step out of line to search carry-on bags, check IDs and wand them for weapons, according to USA Today, which first reported the new effort.

Gate screening was standard procedure after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But the agency phased out the practice in 2003 amid complaints about the increasing hassle of commercial air travel.

The agency quietly resumed gate screening two years ago. Officers stepped up checks on passengers at airport gates in the last two months.

The change wasn't in response to a specific threat, it says. Instead, the idea is to keep terrorists from finding holes in security by making the agency's tactics less predictable, said agency spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.

"Gate screening is particularly effective at addressing insider threats and serves as a random and unpredictable security layer," she said.

Insiders are airport workers who get only occasional screening as they enter secure areas of airports and could smuggle in weapons.

Frequent fliers on the Internet forum FlyerTalk (flyertalk.com) reacted with alarm and bewilderment as gate screening popped up at airports nationwide.

A member identified as KNRG told of getting picked out while waiting for a Continental Airlines flight at Tampa International at 6 a.m.

"It was just odd — go through security, walk (to) the end of the nearly empty airside … and then get a second check," wrote KNRG. "Seemed so obviously pointless."

That was among the kindest comments. One reported that officers in San Diego patted down passengers in full view, because there weren't screened areas or booths like at the checkpoints.

Another complained the Transportation Security Administration held up his already-delayed United Airlines flight by checking the IDs and boarding passes of passengers who had gone through the same drill at a checkpoint 50 feet away.

Writing from his seat on the plane, he concluded, "I can't even find the appropriate words to describe this monumentally stupid organization!"

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Airline passengers call reinstituted random gate checks too intrusive 03/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 10:16pm]
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