TSA approves new laptop carry-on bags

At airport security checkpoints in the United States and elsewhere, passengers have for years heard the refrain, almost a dirge: ''Laptops must be removed from their cases and placed on the belt.''

Get ready for a change. The Transportation Security Administration has given a green light for passengers to use newly designed carry-on bags that will enable them to pass through security without having to take their laptops out for the X-ray inspection.

Kip Hawley, the agency director, told me Monday that the TSA would accept the new laptop cases as soon as they come on the market.

Two of the biggest luggage manufacturers - Pathfinder Luggage and Targus - say they are rushing to produce the new ''checkpoint friendly'' laptop cases and expect them to be available by late September or early October.

Two problems with the existing laptop cases are that security officers have difficulty in seeing inside them with X-ray equipment, and many of the cases are so crammed with extra gear - power cords, a mouse and the like - that the computer itself is obscured.

The new cases include either a fold-down section in a bigger briefcase or a stand-alone protective sleeve that contains no extra clutter and can be readily viewed through the scanner.

More than a half-dozen luggage manufacturers, among about 60 that initially responded to a TSA request for proposals about three months ago, have submitted prototypes for testing at checkpoints at three airports: Dulles, outside Washington; Austin-Bergstrom in Texas; and Ontario, near Los Angeles.

The agency says that more than a quarter of all air travelers carry laptops through security.

Along with having to remove shoes, the requirement to take a laptop out of its protective case has long rankled business travelers, who worry about damage to exposed computers as well as potential loss in the pileup of various travelers' possessions on the other side of the X-ray station.

Hawley, meanwhile, has often said that confusion at checkpoints is itself a security problem. Designing laptop cases that can improve customer service while keeping security at a high level is a way to better ensure a ''calm and predictable'' checkpoint environment, he said.

''Threats have a hard time hiding in a calm environment,'' he said. ''Chaos is great camouflage.''

Hawley said the agency had been working with various manufacturers to develop the new luggage designs. He predicted that various new laptop cases that conform to government requirements would be in wide use by the holidays in December.

''On a conference call with industry representatives, I said that the TSA will not be your gatekeeper on this,'' Hawley said. ''It all depends on how fast you can get to market. We won't slow you down.''

Ron Davis, the executive vice president of Pathfinder Luggage, said that his company had just started producing its two new cases at a plant in the Philippines. He said both had been tested at checkpoints to ensure that they met government specifications.

''They don't want anything obscuring the view of the laptop,'' he said. ''In our case, the material is nylon and foam, and the X-ray machine will see right through that.''

Pathfinder is making two models but plans others. One is a briefcase in which the attached laptop holder is exposed when the case is unzipped. The other is a wheeled carry-on with a removable laptop case.

Davis estimated that the briefcase version would sell for $100 to $150 and the wheeled version for $150 to $200.

Targus, the largest maker of cases for laptops and notebook computers, is about to begin production at factories in China of four new models of checkpoint-compatible bags, said Al Giazzon, the firm's vice president for marketing.

''We've got to produce a lot of them,'' he said. ''We're currently scheduled for a late September or early October delivery of our first bags.''

Among the bags Targus is producing is a backpack design, Giazzon said. He said that retailers were already clamoring for the bags, which will cost from $39 for a basic model to about $100 ''for our corporate series, for heavy-duty travelers.''

Hawley said that the TSA had deliberately avoided formally certifying various manufacturers' bag designs.

''Everybody is aware that the process of the government certifying a piece of security equipment involves a lot of time and red tape,'' he said.

Instead, manufacturers were encouraged to come up with designs that would pass muster, and perhaps adopt a universal slogan or logo that says, ''This bag is checkpoint-friendly,'' he said.

Hawley said he did not expect that the new laptops would create undue confusion after their introduction, since security officers would be well informed about them.

To make sure the cases are easily identifiable, the TSA said in its request for proposals sent to manufacturers that bags should be designed with ''self-evident features,'' including an absence of buckles, pockets or zippers.

Manufacturers were also told that they could label the bags as ''checkpoint friendly,'' or use similar terms, but that they could not state nor imply that the bags were certified or approved by the TSA or use a TSA logo on them.

It will be immediately apparent if a laptop case is not properly designed for easy visual inspection because it will not give security officers a clear X-ray image, Hawley said. The case and laptop will then be removed from the belt for a close look by security officers, he said.

Davis said that passengers who are forced to take a laptop out of its case and rerun it through the X-ray equipment will, in itself, encourage manufacturers to ensure that ''checkpoint friendly'' cases really are.

''If a customer buys the new case and sends it through security and the security officer said, 'Sorry, this doesn't work,' then you've got a very upset customer,'' he said.


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