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Airport serving as test site

April 19, 2002|BY ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

A new airport security measure is being tried out in Hagerstown before being used at airports around the country.

Hagerstown Regional Airport has become the second airport in the country to test every piece of checked luggage for explosives, said Rebecca Trexler, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency created to oversee airport security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Previously, explosives tests had been performed at airports only on selected carry-on and checked bags.

The policy has not changed for carry-on bags, but now every checked bag will be tested, Trexler said.

All carry-on bags still will be checked by X-ray machines.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General and the Federal Aviation Administration have said that explosives detection equipment has been underused, before and after the terrorist attacks.

Airlines were using a computer profiling system to decide which checked bags to test, according to a report from a U.S. House of Representatives aviation subcommittee. The bags of "passengers who pose the greatest threat" were tested, according to the report.

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The new checked-bag tests began at Norfolk International Airport in Norfolk, Va., about six weeks ago.

They started at Hagerstown Regional Airport last week, Airport Manager Carolyn Motz said.

Both airports are using "trace detection systems" that chemically test samples swabbed from the inner and outer surfaces of baggage, Trexler said. The samples are fed into an analyzer, which can tell within seconds if residue from an explosive is present.

Hagerstown is using three trace detection systems that cost about $40,000 each, Trexler said. The Transportation Security Administration provided the equipment.

Two or three other airports probably will be part of the pilot security program, Trexler said. She would not say which ones.

Those other airports will use a combination of trace detection systems and certified "explosive detection systems," which are much larger and use the same technology that medical CAT scans use, Trexler said.

Certified explosive detection systems, which cost $1 million each, can check an entire bag at once, similar to X-ray machines, she said.

The trace detection tests at Hagerstown Regional Airport don't last long.

"If it's done the way it should be done, it takes all of 90 seconds," Motz said.

Still, she encouraged passengers to allow extra time.

The airport encourages passengers to arrive at least one hour before their flights, Motz said.

So far, passengers have been "fantastic" and have welcomed the extra check, she said.

Airport security measures across the country were stepped up after Sept. 11. Some passengers were chosen for more thorough searches. Others had to pass their shoes through X-ray machines.

The explosives test on checked bags is another measure.

All 429 U.S. airports must be testing every checked bag for explosives by Dec. 31.

"It's a huge, huge deadline," Trexler said.

The logistics of the explosives testing at Hagerstown and the other pilot airports will be studied after about six weeks.

Each pilot airport will keep and continue to use the security equipment after the study is finished.

Motz and Trexler said Hagerstown's airport is the smallest of the pilot airports.

Hagerstown Regional Airport was chosen because of its size and because it is close to Washington, D.C., Trexler said.

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