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Airports stepping up vehicle inspections

Be prepared to pop open the trunk for a security check the next time you drive to Tampa International Airport.

The Transportation Security Administration is stepping up random vehicle inspections at the airport as a visible deterrent to bad guys and to train officers in case of real security threats.

"They're going to be random and staggered," said Gary Milano, federal security director for the Tampa Bay area. "The idea is to stay ahead of wrongdoers." The move is part of a nationwide push to increase inspections at airports and seaports.

On Friday morning, officers stopped every third car at gates to the airport's short-term parking garage. Drivers were asked for permission to search their vehicles, then instructed to open the trunk and door locks and turn off the engine. Searches took about a minute. They were not in response to a specific threat, Milano said.

Drivers who refused to let an officer look through their vehicle would have been kept out of the short-term garage. But no one did during the first two hours of checks Friday morning, a TSA supervisor said.

Motorists seemed to take it all in stride. "I don't have a problem with it," said Bill Deboskey of Tampa, who was picking up his boss from a trip. "We got to do what we've got to do for safety."

This is one of the airport's busiest times, with people traveling for Easter and the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship opening rounds in Tampa.

Milano and airport officials agreed to limit checks to vehicles entering the garage atop Tampa International's main terminal. Stopping cars on the airport's entrance road could have caused long traffic jams, said Louis Miller, Tampa International's executive director.

"It's a balance between security and customer service," Milano said.

The TSA won't announce the date, location or length of the next vehicle inspections. Officers might pull over cars on the George Bean Parkway into the airport or stop them at entrances to the long-term or economy parking garages.

On Friday, officers were looking for car bombs, Milano said. "We're talking about 50-gallon tanks of gasoline or possibly something on the bottom of the car," he said. "If there's a tarp in the back seat, we'd want to look a little further. We're not looking in the glove compartment."

Officers who find contraband other than bomb materials during a search will call airport police to investigate and file charges if warranted.

Eighteen local TSA officers are assigned to the program, called "Viper" for Visible Intermodal Protection and Response. Milano couldn't say if there would be any additional costs. Viper is a nationwide program that's been used periodically at Tampa International, most recently six months ago.

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

Airports stepping up vehicle inspections 03/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008 10:47am]
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