Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Since 11 September 2001, We've All Got Used to Tight Airport Security, but Now Every Single Piece of Luggage Passing through America's 429 Airports Must Be Searched Individually

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Since 11 September 2001, We've All Got Used to Tight Airport Security, but Now Every Single Piece of Luggage Passing through America's 429 Airports Must Be Searched Individually

Article excerpt

I've had three bad experiences travelling in the United States this year. First, a suitcase was ruined after I flew from Florida to Washington. Then a bottle of pills was strewn around a bag inside my suitcase after I checked it into an airport. Third, a travel alarm clock appeared to have been stolen after I flew to Portland, Maine: In each case, I blamed a new policy introduced by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the beginning of this year: the 1.5 billion pieces of luggage checked in at airports each year now have to be searched individually for explosives.

I am not talking about having to take off shoes, loosen belts, be searched by electronic wand or having hand luggage checked at security gates. We have all become used to that since 11 September 2001. This is new this year at all the 429 commercial airports in the US: after you see your baggage disappear down a conveyor belt at the check-in desk, it is likely to be opened and hand-searched by TSA employees. If your bag is unlocked, searchers will simply open it and screen it, says the TSA. "If the bag is locked ... then locks may have to be broken," its official advice goes on. Then, just to remind us we are in America, the advice adds reassuringly: "You may still transport a firearm in your baggage."

In the first six months of this policy, there were 6,700 complaints that luggage had been broken or items stolen. A rap star named Lil' Kim reported earlier this summer that jewellery worth a quarter of a million dollars had been stolen from her Louis Vuitton bag (moral: use shoddy suitcases). A man named Mike Peree says his rolls of collector coins were stolen. Paul Hudson, executive director of an airline consumer group, says: "There is just no guarantee that your luggage is secure any more."

Two luggage screeners in Miami have been charged with grand larceny for stealing various items from checked luggage; another baggage handler was arrested in New York on charges of stealing thousands of dollars from checked luggage. The theory behind the new rules, it must be said, is inescapably justifiable: in the era of suicide bombers such as Richard Reid, the Briton who tried to blow up a Paris-Miami flight by igniting explosives in his shoes, it is no longer enough to match each piece of luggage with a passenger. Individually, each suitcase has to be searched for explosives in case a suicide bomber has checked it in.

The problem is that different airports use different methods to search the luggage. …

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