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Security’s getting a little tighter at Gulfport airport

The Transportation Security Administration checks both checked and carry-on luggage. Explosive detection systems are used to screen checked baggage, as pictured, at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
The Transportation Security Administration checks both checked and carry-on luggage. Explosive detection systems are used to screen checked baggage, as pictured, at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. amccoy@sunherald.com

More than 312,000 passengers were screened by TSA at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport last year and new regulations and technology are designed to make the process a little more secure this year.

The Transportation Security Administration was formed two months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to screen passengers and their luggage and keep people safe.

Yes, it’s more of a hassle to fly now than it was before the terrorist attacks, but TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz says most travelers know and appreciate that the 50 or so TSA employees at the Gulfport airport and there for their protection.

“Safety and security have to come first,” she said as she led media on a tour of the airport security systems.

New regulations rolling out in Gulfport, nationally and internationally, will require passengers to take all electronics larger than a cellphone out of their carry-on luggage for screening as they pass through the TSA checkpoint. The electronics must be placed in a bin with nothing on top or below them, TSA directs, similar to how laptops have been screened for years to obtain a clearer X-ray image.

Koshetz said there’s always been a threat that laptops and electronics could be altered to put explosives in them.

“That threat has been escalating,” she said.

That’s why security starts even before a passenger arrives at the airport and why TSA works with the airport, local law enforcement and the intelligence community. The steps are:

▪  Technology is evolving, seen and unseen. What passengers don’t see is TSA’s secure flight system that checks every passenger booking an airline ticket. “If you’re on a no-fly list you don’t fly,” Koshetz said. If you are able to print a boarding pass, she said, you’ve been checked out by TSA.

▪  The first personal contact passengers have with TSA at the Gulfport airport comes at the Travel Document Check. Mike Thompson, a 15-year employee at TSA, checks the government-issued photo ID, verifying identity by looking to see that the eyes, ears and nose of the person in front of him match the ID. “We look at more than just the obvious,” he said. He also uses a black light that shows a hologram on an ID card, such as a Florida gator.

▪  On average 12 flights depart the Gulfport airport and 13 arrive daily. With airlines now charging for checked luggage, more people are traveling with carry-ons, Koshetz said. Steve Verrett started in airport security immediately after 9/11 and recently helped save the life of an employee at the airport who was having a heart attack. He instructs passengers what they need to remove from their bags, such as electronics and liquids, to take off their shoes, remove belts with metal buckles and take everything out of pockets.

▪  While the carry-ons go through X-ray, passengers are scanned. Gulfport was one of the first airports to get Advanced Imaging Technology, said Koshetz. Technology has evolved so that the system now generates a generic image for all passengers. If a possible threat is detected, a yellow box appears on the screen and shows the TSA officer where to look. If there’s no threat, a green “OK” appears on screen. The equipment uses electromagnetic waves, which emits 10,000 times less energy than a cellphone.

▪  For passengers who need to bring baby formula or liquid medicine, a liquid bottle scanner is used for quantities over 3.4 ounces. TSA asks passengers to carry just what they need for their airplane trip and check additional quantities.

▪  Explosive Trace Detection machines can pick up even the smallest trace of explosives on a person’s hand and detect whether that passenger has touched or has explosives on them.

▪  Meanwhile, downstairs checked bags are going through the Explosive Detection System, which stops the conveyor belt if a more precise visual inspection or hand search is needed. Before 9/11 bags went into the belly of the plane without much inspection. Now all are scanned. During the tour, the system stopped several times as military duffel bags were processed. Thompson said the same scrutiny is given to all bags, military or civilian.

▪  Once on the airplane, other security measures were added for safety, such as reinforced cockpit door, armed pilots, crews trained in self defense, “and of course a vigilant public,” Koshetz said.

The TSA requires frequent testing for its staff and stringent safety requirements at even smaller airports like Gulfport, she said.

“We do know that there are threats out there and we do know that any airport could be the target of one of those threats,” Koshetz said.

5 ways to get through screening easier

▪  Put your jewelry into your carry-on and put it on after you go through security

▪  Everything should be removed from pockets, including paper and tissues.

▪  More airports are requiring electronics the size of a cell phone or larger to be removed from your bag. This includes games and toys.

▪  Liquids, gels and aerosols must follow 3-1-1 guidelines: 3.4 ounces or less per container, 1 quart size, clear plastic, zip top bag, 1 bag per passenger

▪  If you have Pre-Check, find shoes with no metal parts.

TSA

TSA by the numbers

At Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport:

▪  312,000 passengers were scanned in 2016

▪  192,000 passengers scanned year-to-date through mid-August

▪  890 average passengers screened daily this year

▪  234,000 check bags screened in 2016

▪  624,000 carry-on bags scanned in 2016

▪  7 firearms intercepted in Gulfport in 2016

▪  1 firearm intercepted year to date in Gulfport

▪  About 50 personnel are assigned to TSA’s Gulfport operation

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