Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Packing is Key to Avoiding Air Travel Ordeal

By Ken Kaye

RISMEDIA, October 19, 2010--(MCT)--It might seem obvious not to pack an object that resembles a pipe bomb in your luggage before boarding a plane. Yet that's what a Texas professor did last month, prompting an intense police investigation and a full-scale evacuation at Miami International Airport.

He was cleared, but his failure to carefully monitor what he packed was not unusual. Nationwide, passengers each day place more than 2.2 million prohibited items in their bags, for a total of 627 million items through September. That includes undeclared guns, large knives and hand grenades.

Packing is the key to avoiding an ordeal at the checkpoint, said Bob Burns, who writes a travel advice blog for the Transportation Security Administration's website, tsa.gov. Travelers should keep that in mind, especially during the holiday season, he said.

The agency recommends emptying a suitcase completely before starting to pack, to ensure nothing unusual from a previous trip could spring a surprise at the checkpoint.

"Make sure you don't have any items in there that look like hand grenades or pipe bombs," said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.

Burns recommends passengers double check the TSA's prohibited items list at tsa.gov. Under the "How to get through the line faster" icon, the site also offers a number of friendly tips on how to "pack smart."

High among them is to pack bags neatly. If taking electronics, pack in layers, with a layer of clothes, then a layer of electronics and then more clothes. If the electronics are thrown together haphazardly, they might look like a bomb on an X-ray screen, Burns said.

"If the picture is clear and uncluttered, you're allowing us to have a good look at everything in a bag," he said.

Other recommendations: Avoid packing oversized electronics, such as laptops or video game consoles, in checked luggage. Prepare a quart-sized, clear plastic zip-close bag to carry liquid or gel items, which are restricted to three ounces in carry-on luggage, or pack larger quantities in checked bags. Don't wrap gifts until you reach your final destination. Place coats and jackets in checked baggage when possible.

Among the most vexing objects it encounters are grenades, the TSA says.

"To us, when we see a grenade come across an X-ray screen, we don't know if it's real or not. So we have to treat it like it is dangerous," said Burns.

Since July, nationwide, passengers have packed 21 grenades or items that appeared to be grenades in their baggage. In each case, the TSA called in the police to investigate.

In most instances, the grenades were inert and intended to be gifts or novelty items, Burns said. One was found in a stuffed animal. One was intended as a gag gift and had a plaque attached that said: "Complaint Department: Take a Number."

Then there was a Pittsburgh passenger who packed a grenade as a present for his son. He told TSA officers he had never flown before and had no idea such an object was forbidden on a plane.

Also troublesome, the TSA said, is that almost 900 guns were intercepted last year. Guns are allowed in checked luggage if passengers have proper permits, declare them to their airline and follow their airline's procedures for packing firearms.

Otherwise, Burns noted, "You would think it's obvious, you can't take a gun on a plane. The No. 1 excuse we get is 'I forgot it was there.'"

If a dangerous item is spotted, a passenger likely will be questioned and faces possible arrest. Such was the case when security officers at Miami International Airport spotted what appeared to be a pipe bomb in the suitcase of a passenger on Sept. 2.

Police identified the man as Thomas C. Butler, a Texas scientist accused by the Justice Department in 2003 of illegally transporting bubonic plague samples.

Suspecting he might have placed biological or explosive material inside the 12-inch pipe, the TSA alerted the FBI and much of the airport was evacuated. A hazmat team and bomb squad were called in, and Butler was detained and questioned.

"On the X-ray, it appeared to have all the characteristics of a pipe bomb," said Koshetz, the TSA spokeswoman. "The evacuation zone was expanded considerably in order to protect the public and the airport workers involved."

The pipe was eventually determined not to be a threat, and Butler was released.

The TSA has implemented a number of high-tech devices to beef up security. Most recently, it purchased 490 body scanners to be placed at the nation's airports this year. The agency also uses advanced X-ray machines to scan carry-on items from multiple angles, allowing for fewer hand searches.

Burns said arriving at the airport early will help passengers more easily navigate the security checkpoint.

"If something does happen to slow you down, you don't have to sweat it," he said. "It's better than missing your flight."

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