August 24th, 2007 14:22 EST
Sky Harbor adds black lights, magnifying glasses to security
You may not have noticed, but the person who checks your boarding pass and driver's license before letting you queue up at a Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport checkpoint is now a trained Transportation Security Administration inspector. Armed with magnifying glasses to spot doctored IDs and black lights to examine holograms on driver's licenses or passports, the inspectors are looking for suspicious boarding pass holders.
Until a few months ago, airline contract workers were gatekeepers at the security checkpoints, said Nico Melendez, TSA spokesman.
The government watchdogs decided to pilot a program in Phoenix to fill the jobs with their own inspectors, Melendez said.
Frequent flier Christine Marshall of Phoenix noticed.
"They are more cautious, more careful. They are actually looking at the photo and looking at you. They always look at mine twice," Marshall said. That's because she lost a lot of weight and doesn't much look like her drivers license mug, she said.
But does the double scrutiny make her feel safer boarding a plane?
"No. If something is going to happen, it will happen," she said.
Mike McGrath of Las Vegas never noticed a difference in those checking his documents, but he is equally nonchalant about the change.
"I think it's all window dressing anyway," he said.
But Melendez said the pilot program has been deemed a success, and the TSA is rolling it out nationwide, filling 1,300 checkpoint entry slots in airports around the country.
The trained inspectors are better at spotting phony documents, he said, and they get an updated government watch list before every shift.
The TSA workers have turned several would-be Sky Harbor passengers with faux IDs over to airport law enforcement officers, Melendez said. But he wouldn't say what they did to their documents or whether they were eventually allowed to board planes.
Criminals might be better off just showing up without any ID.
Contrary to what you might think, the TSA does allow passengers to pass through a checkpoint without any identification.
They just get more thorough screenings - a wanding or pat down, Melendez said. He noted that people have had wallets stolen on vacation and still have to fly home.
Also on the agenda for Sky Harbor are new body screening machines. In February, the local airport got the first backscatter, which uses low intensity X-ray beams that scan the body surface to detect weapons hidden beneath clothing.
An alternative to a pat down for those who set off an alarm in the walk-through screener, the machine has been a hit with passengers despite pre-installation worries that it would reveal too much.
The TSA said earlier this month it will begin testing millimeter wave imaging machines, which use electromagnetic waves to generate an image of a passenger based on energy reflected from the body, as well as more backscatters in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and New York-JFK.
Melendez said he doesn't have a schedule for which machines will be installed at Sky Harbor or exactly when.
Sky Harbor spokeswoman Claire Simeone said none of the security changes have impacted passenger flow.