Travel

Charlotte airport backed up by checkpoint upgrades

(FRIDAY UPDATE, 10 a.m.: Security lines are short at Charlotte/Douglas, with no lines extending beyond the roped areas. There were no lines at Checkpoints D and E.)

The closing of a security checkpoint at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport is causing long lines and delays as passengers struggle to make their flights.

Checkpoint A was shut down last week for expansion and the installation of a new full-body scanner. The area will reopen next month, but for now the closing has at times overwhelmed the other three checkpoints, leaving hundreds of sweaty and angry travelers inching their way through security.

Thursday afternoon, the scene at Charlotte/Douglas was chaotic - colliding lines of people jamming the terminal between checkpoints B and C.

"I didn't even know where (the line) began," said Rob Hooper, who had been waiting for about 25 minutes. "It was kind of all jumbled together. Now, the line's kind of fusing."

Several passengers said they had never seen the airport so crowded. Many looked fed up and worried about missing their planes. Hooper, whose flight was leaving in an hour, said he was thinking about switching his trip to today.

Aviation Director Jerry Orr recommends arriving at the airport earlier than usual during peak times - mornings early in the week, and afternoons at the end of the week.

Meanwhile, the installation of the airport's second body scanner comes amid growing criticism of the machines.

The scanners are part of the Transportation Security Administration's plans to have 1,000 of the machines operating in American airports by the end of 2011, said TSA spokesman Jon Allen. TSA began deploying more scanners to airports earlier this year in an effort to better ensure security.

Orr said Charlotte/Douglas will have four by the end of the year.

The increased use of new machines was announced last fall, before a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with explosives concealed in his underwear.

Proponents of the scanners say that event highlighted the need for additional security in the U.S. aviation system.

The scanners, which use either radio waves or a low-powered X-ray, are able to reveal any metallic or non-metallic items that may be hidden underneath clothing, Allen said.

The rays go through clothing and display an outline of the passenger's body - with the face blurred - to a TSA official in a separate room. The official checks for anything out of the norm, and the image is promptly deleted.

Since widespread installation of the scanners began, critics have raised concerns about privacy, health effects, costs and wait times associated with the technology.

Last week, Dubai officials announced they would not use the scanners at the emirate's security checkpoints because of privacy and ethical reasons, reported The National, an English paper in the United Arab Emirates.

And the executive branch of the European Union released a report about the scanners in June that called for a "rigorous scientific assessment" of their health effects.

Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines worldwide, said rather than focusing on possible terrorists at the airport, the government should be concentrating on catching them before they get to the airport.

"The airport should be the last line of defense, not the first," Lott said.

Charlotte resident John McLean, who flies frequently out of Charlotte/Douglas for his job, said he doesn't care about sacrificing his privacy for safety, but does not trust the machines because of possible long-term health effects.

"I don't want 20 years from now to be walking around with a tumor on my thigh because I've been scanned by this machine 500 times," McLean said.

TSA says several experts - including the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health - have determined that the scanners expose passengers to only low doses of radiation that are well below national safety standards.

Although the scanners are being integrated into the regular screening process at security checkpoints across America, passengers have the option of receiving a pat-down instead. McLean said he tries to line up in a security point that uses a metal detector when he can. If prompted for a scan, he opts for a pat-down.

Allen said about 98 percent of passengers in American airports agree to be scanned.

Some passengers who have metal medical devices in their body want to use the scanners to avoid the hassle of explaining their circumstances, Allen said. Scanners are also appealing to anyone who may feel uncomfortable with a pat-down.

But several Charlotte residents who travel often for business said the machines take up too much time.

Bob Doerrer, who flies 23 weekends every year for work, said he avoids Checkpoint B at Charlotte/Douglas - where the one operational scanner is located - so he does not have to wait to be scanned.

"It's a big pain in the butt," he said.

Senators Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill in June mandating that all airports have the body imaging machines at security gates by 2013. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Charlotte/Douglas unveiled its first body scanner in April as one of the 11 airports chosen to receive a machine through federal stimulus money. Previously, there were about 40 machines - installed in 2007 and 2008 - in use at 19 American airports, Allen said.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

  Comments