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Security tighter, but lines and waits are shorter
After an initial early-morning rush, passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were enjoying a much smoother path to flights this morning after new security measures snarled check-in and security lines Thursday, causing frustration and missed flights for thousands.
The new precautions, which banned liquid items from being stored in carry-on luggage or taken on board flights, resulted in hours-long security delays for passengers who were forced to repack banned items in checked luggage or throw them out.
Bob Parker, spokesman for Sea-Tac Airport, said early morning security lines at 6 a.m. had passengers snaking back through the terminal and onto a skybridge leading to the airport's parking garage. Passengers were waiting up to 45 minutes to clear the screening area.
"That initial rush was mostly caused by passengers who arrived so early that staffing wasn't available yet," Parker said. "But those have since cleared up."
At 7:30 a.m., in the midst of one of the airport's two busiest daily traffic hours, security lines were moving along well, with only five people in queue at the central checkpoint. The most crowded checkpoint on the north side of the airport, which serves Alaska and United airlines, had passengers waiting for just under 10 minutes.
Lara Miller, a 32-year-old mother of twin toddlers from Mobile, Ala., said she arrived 2 ½ hours early for her early-morning flight to Chicago. She said it was difficult traveling with children under the new ban, but said accommodations for taking baby formula and medications on board were helpful.
"It could be worse," she said. "I'm really surprised the lines are moving so quickly."
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Miller and her two children made it through security in 10 minutes.
Airport officials attributed the shorter lines to passengers arriving prepared for the additional security measures.
"I guess this shouldn't be a surprise that lines are moving better today," Parker said. "It takes people a little while to get used to things. People know after yesterday not to bring certain things on board."
Unlike Thursday, when large bins were filled with banned items taken from passengers, this morning screeners confiscated relatively few items.
Parker said he didn't expect lines to get much worse than this morning's initial rush. As a precaution, however, airport authorities have closed Levels 3 and 4 of the parking garage to allow for overflow lines should they build up.
"We're not expecting to see that happen, but the option is there if we need it," he said. "So far, things are going pretty smoothly."
If parking becomes an issue, those floors could be reopened later today.
Parker attributed today's diminished delays to passengers being better prepared than Thursday, when the ban went into effect early in the morning, just before some flights began to leave.
Parker suggests passengers continue to arrive at Sea-Tac at least two hours ahead of time to ensure ample time to clear check-in and security lines.
"It's always better to have a time cushion," he said. "But things aren't as bad here as yesterday."
Airport officials say they are counting on increased staff and better-prepared passengers to ease the long lines and missed flights that frustrated air travel Thursday after the thwarted London bombing plot.
But the Air Transport Association, the trade group for major airlines, said tougher security measures would be in place nationwide starting today. Airline passengers at all major U.S. airports will be subject to double screening, first at the security checkpoint and again at the boarding gate, to make sure they're not carrying liquids or gels onto planes.
"It is reasonable to expect longer security lines and delayed flights," the group said in a statement. "Passengers need to check with their airline on a regular basis and arrive at the airport significantly earlier for their flight. It would be a good idea to keep carry-on luggage to a minimum."
Not all Sea-Tac passengers will be double-screened, said Jennifer Peppin, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokeswoman in Seattle.
All passengers will go through the initial security checkpoint as usual, she said, and some will be screened again at the gates by TSA, airport and airline employees.
Early this morning, passengers at Sea-Tac were not being double-screened, but that could change during peak times, officials warned.
To increase the chances of flights staying on time, Alaska Airlines recommended that passengers not bring carry-on baggage, spokeswoman Amanda Tobin Bielawski said.
Peppin urged travelers to take advantage of online ticketing and check-in options.
She also said travelers should consider what they pack in their carry-on luggage. "If they're not sure, they should pack it in their checked luggage," she said.
TSA has ramped up its staffing to its Thanksgiving and Christmas level, Peppin said. All employees with the day off who can make it to work are being called back in, she said. Seasonal and part-time screeners also will be on the job.
While security reasons kept her from saying how many screeners will be working, Peppin said the agency employs more than 800 screeners at Sea-Tac during the year.
"We've got every single body out there that we can have out there," she said.
On Thursday, some passengers waited in line three hours at security checkpoints. Lines backed up into the parking garage, wrapping around several times.
The lines were so long because every piece of carry-on luggage was being inspected and all liquids and gels — including drinks, shampoos and lotions — were being removed, said Bob Parker, an airport spokesman.
British police said terrorists were plotting to blow up U.S.-bound planes by smuggling liquid explosives on board.
The U.S. raised its threat alert to its highest level for commercial flights from Britain to the United States amid fears the terrorist plot had not been completely crushed. The alert for all flights coming or going from the United States was also raised slightly.
Longer than Disneyland
Typically, about 200 people an hour are processed through each security screening line at Sea-Tac. At times Thursday, 70 people or fewer passed through each hour.
"We were in Disneyland last week and no line compared to this one," said Leslie Zibell, a teacher from Noorvik, Alaska, who was heading home from the theme park with her three children. She had been waiting almost two hours in line and was near the security checkpoint.
Airport officials expect heavier traffic today going into the weekend, traditionally one of the biggest travel weekends of the vacation season.
August is the busiest time of year at Sea-Tac. About 500 flights carrying 51,000 people are expected to leave the airport today, said Rachel Garson, an airport spokeswoman.
But officials hope passengers will come to the airport better prepared.
"We have some optimism for [Friday] because today caught everyone by surprise," Parker said.
At the end of one line Thursday, Denise Richardson of Bellevue waited to catch a flight to Los Angeles with her 9-year-old daughter, Cora.
"I know they're trying to keep us safe, but come on, it's a bottle of conditioner," Richardson said, as she prepared to throw a bottle away.
Allison Yearsley, her husband, James, and their three young children were returning to Great Britain on Thursday after vacationing in Seattle.
Allison Yearsley carried a plastic bag that contained the family's passports, gum and tissues. That was the extent of their carry-on luggage.
"It's the lightest we've ever traveled," she said.
The couple weren't looking forward to spending 10 hours on a plane after they had to pack away in checked luggage their children's coloring books and crayons — and their books — because of stricter British travel regulations.
"The thought of 10 hours without a book is awful," Yearsley said.
Many missed flights
Parker said 3,700 missed their flights Thursday because of the screening delays. "I'm hearing planes with 100 seats are going out with 30 seats full on them."
Passengers who missed flights were told to stay in line and rebook via cellphone.
Workers carried tall wooden signs with a piece of paper stapled on top with the words "end of line." As passengers streamed into the airport, the sign holders kept moving back.
TSA screeners from several airports, including Seattle's, say they were told all vacation and days off were canceled for the foreseeable future.
"It was a full house this morning when I came in," one Seattle screener said. "From top to bottom, everyone was running."
All of the airport's 29 security checkpoints were open, airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt said.
An asbestos-removal worker and a painter working at Sea-Tac pitched in to help passengers navigate the airport.
Guard, Patrol available
At several U.S. airports, guards with rifles stood watch, and the governors of California, New York and Massachusetts sent National Guard troops to bolster security.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire said the Washington National Guard and the State Patrol are available if needed at Sea-Tac. TSA officials, however, have not requested assistance, she said.
Mike Milne, spokesman for Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection divisions, said his agency pulled in agents from across the state so all international flights at Sea-Tac could be scrutinized.
Passengers on the sole airplane from Great Britain that landed at Sea-Tac on Thursday night said they were checked by bomb-sniffing dogs and hand-searched by screeners.
Also, airport personnel said all luggage on the plane was hand-searched and X-rayed multiple times after landing.
Increased security screening also delayed the ferry sailing from Sidney, B.C., to Anacortes, the Washington State Ferries said.
Calmer in Portland
Portland International Airport handled the stepped-up security with few disruptions.
"We really haven't had a wait time [to clear security] longer than 15 to 18 minutes, which is about what we would expect during the busy part of the summer travel season," said Kama Simonds, an airport representative.
Most passengers came to the airport aware of the new restrictions, Simonds said.
But at Sea-Tac, Betancourt said most passengers weren't aware of the new rules.
TSA employees sifted through luggage in search of liquids, lotions and gels, which were banned beginning at 4 a.m. Thursday from all carry-on luggage, she said. Baby formula and medications will be allowed but must be inspected at security checkpoints. Cellphones and iPods also are still allowed on board, Betancourt said.
The list of banned substances includes all drinks, toothpaste, perfume, shampoo, hair gel, suntan lotion, cosmetics and similar items. Even drinks purchased in the airport cannot be carried on board.
"There's a lot of makeup going into the garbage today," airport spokesman Parker said.
Staff reporters Nathan Hurst, Jennifer Sullivan, Joe Mullin, Jonathan Martin, Nancy Bartley, Cheryl Phillips, Christine Clarridge and Susan Gilmore contributed to this report. McClatchy-Tribune News Service also contributed.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company