WASHINGTON – The ban on carrying liquids and gels onto airliners will continue indefinitely, raising questions about whether there are enough airport screeners to do the added work.
The restrictions are part of tighter airline security ordered by the Transportation Security Administration Thursday in the wake of a foiled terror plot. The alleged conspirators planned to blow up as many as 10 planes flying from Britain to the U.S. using liquid explosives — which the TSA's security equipment cannot detect in carry-on luggage.
Since Thursday, screeners have searched more carry-on luggage by hand. They also randomly checked passengers at airport gates to make sure that they had not bought toothpaste or drinks at airport shops after going through a security checkpoint.
The TSA, though, is limited by law to have 45,000 screeners. That is not enough to do the job right at the 450 commercial airports the agency protects, according to congressional Democrats.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there are enough screeners.
"The experience in the last 24 hours has showed that TSA has managed to deal with its workload and its workflow quite effectively," Chertoff said on Friday, the day after the new security rules took effect.
But at airports in Boston, Los Angeles and San Diego, National Guard troops were helping to screen passengers a second time at departure gates and helped herd crowds through security checkpoints.
The ban on liquids and gels also forced the TSA to increase the number of screeners scheduled to work at airports.
"We have all hands on deck and we've brought all our resources to bear on the threat," TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said Saturday.
Screeners at San Diego International Airport were put on a mandatory six-day work week, said Cris Soulia, a screener at the airport and union representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners.
Soulia said passengers are checking more bags because of the ban on liquids and gels, which has doubled the workload for TSA employees who screen the checked bags for bombs.
"We're stretched kind of thin as it is," Soulia said. "We can't sustain it."
They may have to.
TSA chief Kip Hawley on Friday made it clear that the ban on liquids may well continue after the terror threat alert — now at orange — is reduced.
"As to the liquid ban, there is no timetable," Hawley told The Associated Press. "We're going to take as long as it takes for us to be satisfied with our total security system."
Soulia said the screeners could not have done the gate checks in San Diego without the National Guard's help. He said it was fortunate that security was tightened during a lull in the travel season.
"If this had happened a few weeks early during Fourth of July, or a few weeks later during Labor Day, I don't know how we could have pulled it off," he said.
Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, has tried to get the cap of 45,000 screeners lifted.
On July 12, the Senate approved his amendment to lift the cap as part of the Homeland Security spending bill for 2007. The House kept the limit in its version of the bill, and the two versions must be reconciled.
"It's time to put safety first and remove this arbitrary limit," Lautenberg said.
The TSA will be refining its security procedures in the next few days, Hawley said.
A Newsweek poll released Saturday showed that almost half, 45 percent definitely favor banning liquids and another fourth, 24 percent, probably will favor that step.
But the poll found that a majority, 54 percent, oppose banning carry-on baggage on commercial flights.