WASHINGTON – Air travelers will find out this weekend whether the new baggage-screening system that started at every U.S. airport on New Year's Day is capable of handling heavy traffic.
So far, air traffic has been light and few problems were reported as 429 airports began examining bags for explosives. But on Saturday, millions of holiday travelers are expected to return home.
Congressional orders to verify that no checked bag contains explosives have been carried out by 23,000 newly hired government workers at airports using new equipment. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, only 5 percent of the roughly 2 million bags checked each day were screened for bombs.
"Most (airports) are saying there really haven't been too many customer service issues," said Juliette Wright, spokeswoman for the Airports Council International-North America, an airport trade group. "This weekend will be the true test."
David O'Connor, U.S. director of the International Air Transport Association, which represents 276 U.S. and foreign-owned airlines, said many carriers anticipate problems this weekend.
Scattered delays have been reported since screening began.
Passengers had to wait 45 minutes to check their bags at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nev., and Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wis. But the new screening system hasn't caused long lines or flight delays at such hubs as New York, Chicago or Atlanta.
Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said Friday, "When you look at the fact that a year ago we had very little oversight of checked baggage, and now it is virtually 100 percent, it's amazing how well this is moving."
The Transportation Security Administration, created in response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is in charge of screening baggage. The agency will be watching carefully this weekend to make sure security checks don't cause delays, TSA spokesman Brian Turmail said.
"We're going to be monitoring the bag screening at all airports," he said. "We want to know if there are crowds in lobbies in airports, and what's causing those crowds."
Airports can use several methods to inspect bags: big bomb-detection machines, wands that detect traces of explosives, bomb-sniffing dogs or hand searches. They also may match each bag to a passenger before takeoff.
At Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, TSA screeners feed bags by hand into big white machines stationed every 100 to 200 feet in front of the north terminal ticket counters. They hand-search bags if the machines register positive for explosives.
A half-dozen air travelers interviewed Friday at Washington's Reagan National Airport all said the new procedures require more effort, but most appreciated the added security.
"I think it's a hassle, but worthwhile," said Wendy Loder, 42, a marketing director who was rushing to catch a shuttle flight to New York.
Marie and Pascal Mbiene waited 20 minutes while a TSA screener unwrapped and opened each of the wedding gifts they'd packed. One of their bags registered a "false positive" — that is, a machine recorded an explosive or weapon when none existed. The couple also missed their flight home to Dallas because they arrived at the ticket counter too close to takeoff. New rules require passengers to be at the gate at least a half-hour before departure.
"To me this is the most painful burden dealt by 9/11," said Mrs. Mbiene, a 34-year-old physician.
Airports can adjust if lines move too slowly. At Dane County airport, workers scrapped their strategy of screening luggage with wands after passengers checked in at the ticket counter. TSA spokesman Paul France said that plan left too many screeners waiting with nothing to do while passengers — and their luggage — waited for boarding passes.
Instead, the workers decided to screen luggage as soon as passengers stepped up to the ticket counter.
Turmail said the agency is "cautiously optimistic that TSA will pass the test this weekend."