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U.S. now runs airport watch

With 24 hours to spare, federal transportation officials announced Monday that they met the deadline set by Congress to federalize security screeners at the nation's commercial airports, including those in the Tampa Bay area.

In simultaneous, self-congratulatory celebrations in Washington, Tampa International and other airports around the country, officials of the Transportation Security Administration showed off their new spit-and-polish cadres of uniformed screeners.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress had ordered that the nation's 429 commercial airports be staffed by federal screeners by today.

Nationally, TSA has recruited more than 47,000 people for screening and administrative positions. About 740 of them work at Tampa International Airport, and more than 100 each at St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Sarasota-Bradenton international airports.

All three airports were federalized in August.

Now TSA must turn its full attention to a more difficult Dec. 31 deadline for screening all checked bags for explosives. Officials conceded Monday that some of the nation's largest airports won't be ready by then.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in Washington that the government plans to use "enhanced interim solutions" but did not elaborate. In the past, TSA has suggested that hand searches of bags and the use of bomb-sniffing dogs would be acceptable interim measures.

The House has approved an extension of the Dec. 31 deadline as part of the bill creating a Department of Homeland Security. The Senate is expected to vote on it this week.

At Tampa International Airport, TSA director Dario Compain said the deadline waivers "are for those airports (where floors are) unable to stand the weight (of the equipment) or those that will require major reconstruction. Tampa has the capability to accept the equipment."

TIA, which is among the nation's 30 largest airports, will meet the year-end deadline, Compain said, as long as his agency delivers the detection equipment on time.

"There are a number of variables, but we are optimistic," he said. "By the end of the week, we will have 185 screeners trained and ready to use the machines, and we are expecting the first delivery of three (explosive detection systems) this week."

In all, TIA will set up 10 of the minivan-sized EDS systems and 83 smaller explosive trace detectors on the ticketing level of the main terminal building.

After passengers check in at the counter, they will take their bags to explosive detectors where TSA screeners will pass them through.

By this time next year, TIA officials expect to have all of that equipment off the terminal floor and relocated to in-line positions on baggage conveyor belts out of public view.

But even though full-scale use of the explosive detectors won't begin until Dec. 31, the agency is anticipating delays during the holiday travel season that begins next weekend.

To help travelers know what to expect and which pitfalls to avoid, TSA has created a Web site that lists acceptable carryon items and those that aren't.

The Web site also will help passengers with special needs, such as disabilities, religious or cultural requirements and those traveling with children.

The TSA travel Web site address is www.tsatraveltips.us.

One of the top travel tips is to put off wrapping gifts until after arrival at the destination. To do otherwise risks having security screeners insist that the presents be unwrapped for inspection.

TSA also strongly recommends placing undeveloped film _ both exposed and unexposed _ in carryon bags. The explosive detection devices will ruin the film if it is in checked bags. Although explosive detectors won't be in official use until New Year's, TSA will be setting them up, testing them and training on them for the next six weeks. Some checked luggage could wind up going through the detectors.

Despite the heightened security measures, Compain said his agency is dedicated to providing "world-class national security and world-class customer service."

It was a message echoed in Washington, where the agency's early months were marred by accusations that its officials acted in a heavy-handed way without regard to the needs and comfort of the traveling public.

Speaking in the historic old terminal at Reagan National Airport as jets took off and landed outside, homeland security director Tom Ridge praised the TSA for using "good old-fashioned common sense" in dropping the requirement that airline ticket agents ask passengers if they packed their own bags, or if they're carrying something aboard for someone else.

The checkpoints are running smoothly, Ridge said, with 90 percent of all passengers screened in 10 minutes or less.

Although there are 429 commercial airports in the country, only 424 have federalized screeners. San Francisco; Kansas City; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo., still use private screeners who received the same training as the federal screeners. They are a part of an experiment to determine which system is cheaper and more effective.

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