Jewish World Review April 21, 2004 / 30 Nissan, 5764

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports

At airports, will it be buying or bombing? | The feds are considering changing the rules on airport security again, which could end up creating even greater bottlenecks at those security checkpoints that are the bane of every traveler. Thanks to pressure from some lawmakers and retail companies, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) may open up airport terminals once more to people who don't hold airline tickets so that they can greet or send off travelers. Of course this would mean many more people snaking through security lines, taking off their sneakers, emptying their pockets, and subjecting their bodies to pat downs and wandings by TSA employees. Obviously this isn't going to enhance security, much less make traveling easier or faster, so what's behind this move?

Apparently, some companies and regional airport authorities are distressed that the post 9/11 security rules have ruined their plans to turn airports into shopping malls. Don't get me wrong — I like the convenience of retail stores in airports. I'm not the typical business flyer who gets to the airport at the last minute. I usually arrive at least an hour ahead of time and end up spending time — and money — in those stores. In fact, I do most of my book buying in airports these days. But, I'd rather do without the stores than spend two or three times as long waiting in the security line, which is what will happen if airports open up their terminals to non-travelers again.

The idea behind terminals-as-shopping-malls seems to have come from the Duty Free shops that have been in place for decades in most international airports. Even before airlines added extra security measures to combat terrorism, most international flights required passengers to arrive at least two hours early, which left travelers with lots of time to fill before their planes took off. Duty free shops filled the void and allowed international travelers to stock up on luxury items without paying the often exorbitant duties or taxes due on certain items. Now, similar shops have become ubiquitous in modern domestic terminals as well.

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Pittsburgh International is a prime example. Once the least hospitable major airport, it is now one of the most modern, traveler-friendly in the country, thanks to a major $800 million overhaul in 1992, which brought in restaurants and stores galore. But like many airports, Pittsburgh has been struggling since 9-11. It doesn't help matters that Pittsburgh depends on one airline for the bulk of its revenues. U.S. Airways, which controls about 80 percent of Pittsburgh's gates and has been struggling with its own financial woes, has been threatening to leave if the airport doesn't lower its costly gate fees.

But the airport can't lower gate fees unless it makes up the revenue with parking fees or merchant leases — and in order to earn these, the airport needs more people to spend time in its facilities. So the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which runs Pittsburgh International, is hoping to be the first test case to relax the rules on letting family and friends accompany passengers to and from the gate. The TSA is currently reviewing a proposed plan to open the terminal to non-passengers, which could be in place this summer if the Department of Homeland Security approves it.

Given increased concerns about terrorist attacks this summer, this may not be the best time to implement such a plan. Longer lines at checkpoints would be unavoidable, increasing the risk that harried TSA screeners might not be as thorough as necessary to stop would-be terrorists. And, unless airlines reinstated photo-ID checks at the gate, which would add even more time to the process, what would stop terrorists from using decoys to purchase tickets, check in and then pass off the boarding pass to someone who might be on a watch list?

A better alternative might be to redesign airports with larger check-in terminals and smaller wait areas past security gates. San Francisco and Reagan National in Washington, D.C., have struck a good balance, with eateries and shops on the check-in side of the terminal as well as in the gate area, making it possible for friends and family to visit with passengers before they leave or while they await their arrival without clogging up security checkpoints. Sure, airports have to worry about revenues, but making travel even more time-consuming or less secure isn't the way to go about it.

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