Comments at N.H. Airport Reflect Public's Position on Airport Security

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - More than 200 comments and complaints filed by air travelers passing through Manchester Airport reflect the public's shifting attitude toward new screening and security systems.

Comments were occasionally positive in the first months of 2003, when the screening system was implemented and memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks remained fresh in the national consciousness. Many gave suggestions on how to do a better job, or complained about perceived security flaws: unattended baggage, entry onto a plane without ID being checked, potential use of knitting needles or plastic cutlery as weapons.

But toward the later months of 2004, savvy fliers were complaining about inconsistencies in screening procedures at different airports. They also wanted to reduce security-related delays, such as getting a name off a watch list, according to The Union Leader, which reviewed the 229 comments the Transportation Security Administration received about the airport in 2003 and 2004.

In a survey the federal agency released earlier this month, 80 to 95 percent of air travelers nationally gave positive responses when asked about the screening process. Manchester Airport, used by some 4 million passengers a year, was not among the airports surveyed.

"The vast majority of passengers understand the need for the level of security that TSA has put in place," said Ann Davis, Northeast spokesman for the federal agency.

Most complaints deal with lost items in checked luggage. Travelers have asked the agency to compensate for or find lost cash, CD players, prescriptions, clothing, liquor and cigarettes. Others said luggage or items in luggage were damaged and their belongings were in disarray after inspections. A few travelers found items that did not even belong to them.

"When they search something, they should put it back the way they find it," said Jessie Osborne, a Concord resident who filed a complaint. "They could just be a lot more user-friendly."

During a recent flight, security workers opened the woman's checked baggage for inspection. Inside were two sealed bottles of maple syrup, which Osborne had planned to give as a gift. They were opened, and the cap was not replaced properly, meaning the syrup spilled out of the jug, said Osborne, who is a state representative.

Fortunately, the inspectors returned the jugs to a sealable plastic bag, which prevented a mess, she said.

"We do our best," Davis said about luggage inspectors. All checked luggage is fed through an explosion detection machine. Any piece that trips an alarm must be hand-inspected.

Some people over-pack their luggage, which makes the inspection difficult, she said. Screeners are trained to be customer-conscious, she said.

In another complaint, a man said a screener over-scrutinized his carry-on luggage, finally seizing a four-part screwdriver that had made it through airports in Las Vegas, Nashville, Chicago and even Manchester.

"He seemed intent on finding some security risk in my belongings," the traveler later recalled.

"I realize that I may look somewhat Arab. I can't help that," the man wrote to the agency. "I enjoy a safe flight, but safety enforced with 'Gestapo tactics' seems a little much."

Eight people complained they were warned that if they did not remove their shoes, they would be forced to undergo a lengthy secondary search. An airline pilot flying out of uniform said that three times last November, a screener told him to remove his shoes.

"What gives?" he wrote. "TSA at the other 16 cities I've traveled through this month have said I'm OK with my shoes."

A TSA official said screeners look for shoes that fit a certain profile. Ray Carolan, the airport's federal security director, said workers follow standard procedure "religiously."

But airport director Kevin Dillon said one of the benefits of federal security was supposed to be uniform applications of security practices.

"In many cases, that hasn't occurred. It's a concern, that people should be not treated differently," he said.