The Nation's Best Run Airport — and Why It's Still Not Good Enough

  • Share
  • Read Later

Crowds go through security checkpoints at Denver International Airport

(3 of 4)

Much of the problem, in the view of Baumgartner, is the rush to have some bag-screening system—any bag-screening system—in place by the congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31. He is one of 39 airport managers who sent a letter to the TSA on May 29 appealing for the deadline to be extended. The message may have finally got through to Congress; Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, will introduce a bill this week that will give airports more flexibility in meeting bag-screening requirements and allow them to come up with individualized plans.

Bags that might be carrying bombs are just one security concern that Denver is dealing with. Another is the large number of people—fuelers, caterers, baggage handlers—who have access to planes on the airfield. Even before Sept. 11, Denver had a program called Always Challenge Everybody, which urged all airport employees to question unauthorized people in secure areas and report suspicious activities—and offered gifts from airport concessionaires and vouchers for airline tickets as a reward. Since Sept. 11, the airport has also beefed up its background checks, for the first time screening all employees, not just newly hired ones. The airlines have also tightened their background checks of employees, and so have airport vendors and subcontractors. McDonald's lost a number of workers who turned out to be illegal aliens, depleting its staff so quickly, according to airport sources, that one airport outlet had to be temporarily shut down. (McDonald's denies that it employed undocumented workers and says the closing was due to the voluntary departure of several employees.) Badges for people on the tarmac are checked constantly, and undercover agents occasionally walk about looking for suspicious sorts. But some question how useful all this scrutiny is. A private security guard checking IDs on a service road inside the airport seemed unsure which documents she was supposed to be examining and for what. "I keep getting conflicting reports," she said. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be looking for now."

The most visible sign of increased airport security since Sept. 11, of course, is the now familiar screening gauntlet that passengers must go through before entering the gate areas. The obsession, early on, with even the most innocent of personal items has been relaxed somewhat. A sign near the ticket counters in Denver informs flyers that nail clippers, tweezers and syringes—with proof of medical need—are now allowed after inspection. Yet plenty of verboten items—knives, screwdrivers, scissors—are still being confiscated. Since these items are not saved or returned to passengers, flyers in Denver started burying them in planters near the entrance to Concourse A, intending to pick them up after their return flight. The planters got so full that the airport had to remove them.

Passenger screening falls into two categories: the largely random screening that is done at security checkpoints (with extra attention paid to anyone who sets off the metal detector) and secondary screening at ticket counters and gates, where random checks are combined with special searches of passengers singled out by computer. The criteria for targeting these passengers, kept secret for security reasons, include such things as buying a one-way ticket and paying with cash. Although profiling by race or ethnic background is officially rejected, it is clear that, informally at least, some profiling is being done. One afternoon at Denver, a German couple about to board a flight to Las Vegas were fuming over having their bags searched for the second time in 20 minutes. "If we treated Americans traveling in Germany like this," griped the man, "it would be discrimination." Though the airport's two security firms declined to comment, a screener who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity confided, "For me, profiling is the only way to be conscientious in doing the job. I make decisions based on who I wouldn't like to be seated next to on an airplane. If someone is unkempt and nervous or if they look like they belong on a bus instead of a plane, if they wear a baseball cap backwards and, without question, if they look to be foreign or of Middle Eastern descent." And African Americans? No, he says, that would be discrimination.

Baumgartner and other Denver officials argue that more profiling needs to be done, not less. With limited resources, they contend, too much time is wasted on random screening of toddlers and grandmothers, and too much emphasis is put on the objects people carry rather than on the people carrying them. They want more information about passengers put into the airlines' computer data bank, information that would enable veteran flyers with clean records to escape the shakedowns and allow more scrutiny of those who may pose a risk. As Baumgartner puts it, "Aunt Mildred is not the problem."

The Aunt Mildreds, however, seem to be handling these screening hassles with surprising good grace—accepting and even welcoming them as a way of doing their bit in the war against terror. "I'm a little anxious," said Kathy Taggart as she prepared to board a flight to Houston with Samantha, 18 months. "It's my first flight since 9/11. But I'd rather go through this than end up with terrorists on the plane." Cyrus Daruwalla, an accountant from Malaysia, had been selected for screening at every stop on his two-week trip through the U.S. Still, he said, "I don't feel victimized. I know the threat perception is greater for foreigners. The screening procedures don't really bother me."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4