Checking In on Check-In

Starting Tuesday, every piece of an airline traveler's baggage going onto a commercial airplane is scheduled to be screened. And airports are scrambling to meet the target. The primary aim, of course, is to guard against an explosive packed in a suitcase.

Until today, lack of bag inspection was a big post 9/11 loophole in airport security. Now, all bags are to be screened by white-shirted, yellow-badged federal workers using high-tech machines, and/or bomb-sniffing dogs. Also, some 10 percent of check-in bags are to be opened by federal agents and hand searched.

The task is enormous: 1.5 billion bags move through the nation's 429 commercial airports each year. And the test for those charged with securing those airports will be to ensure that travel goes as smoothly as it did this year over the traditionally extra-busy Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Thus far, Americans have adjusted well to the changing security demands at airports, and elsewhere. They likely will not put up much fuss over having to make minor travel-related adjustments such as not packing cheese or fruitcake (they can make detection devices think they're explosives), or camera film (which could get ruined by higher energy scanners and should be hand carried).

Because airports had to rush to meet the deadline, the bulky screening systems used at busier airports aren't all fully in place, and procedures differ at various airports, which could confuse passengers. The scanners also are chalking up their share of false positive rates - to the tune of about 35 percent. That slows down processing time and could create further delays.

Fuller inspections also raise concerns about theft; hopefully, that's offset by federal employee screeners who are paid more than private contractors and have undergone more extensive background checks.

Each of these issues should get sorted out sooner rather than later (research is already going on to streamline the system) and the Transportation Security Administration has been appropriately flexible in granting limited extensions, and flexibility, where needed.

As with most security, the need is for long-term vigilance, not just short-term attention, even with the help of high-tech gadgetry.

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