Living with new luggage scrutiny

The most recent change in the world of airport security is in the bag.

As of Dec. 31, every one of the 429 commercial airports in the U.S. was required to screen all checked bags. Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that spurred new security awareness, only 5% of checked bags were screened, according to the federal Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the system.

The lengthy checkpoint delays that many predicted have not materialized, for the most part. With a little understanding of the process, you can navigate the new system with ease.

At most airports, including LAX, checked bags are screened with an Electronic Detection System (EDS) or Electronic Trace Detection (ETD) machine. The first, weighing up to 3 tons and measuring 20 feet or more, X-rays the bag. The second, much smaller, determines whether a swab, wiped across your bag, has residues of compounds used in explosives. In either case, your bag may be hand-searched if it appears to contain suspicious objects.

More than 90% of all airports have the machines. The ones that don't may do searches by hand, use explosives-detecting dogs or employ what's called "positive bag matching" -- making sure no passenger's bag gets on a plane without the passenger on board too. These airports have until Dec. 31 to install detection machines, the TSA says.

Practices vary by airport and even by airline within the same airport, including LAX. In some cases, you may take your bag to a central screening area, which forwards it to the plane. Or you may take it to the airline's ticket counter, which delivers it to the screening area.

The TSA recommends unlocking your checked bags before sending them through screening or using removable cable ties to hook the zippers together to avoid damage to locks if screeners need to open them. At some airports, you may be paged if your bags need to be opened, but that will not always be the case, said TSA spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan. "We will not assume responsibility for replacing a lock," she said.

Screeners are instructed to put a notice in the bag if they open it. If you think items are missing after a search, you can call the TSA's Consumer Response Center and file a complaint, Rhatigan said. The toll-free line, (866) 289-9673, is open 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific Standard Time Mondays through Fridays and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The TSA Web site says it "will assess any claims made to TSA on an individual basis."

It also suggests you put belongings in clear plastic bags and spread out books and documents. It's best not to pack wrapped gifts in carry-on or checked bags because they may be opened for inspection.

Other changes in airport security in the last year include some loosening of the rules on items banned from your carry-on. Nail files, knitting needles and corkscrews are now OK. Also, many airports now require you to get a boarding pass before going through security.

Here are tips for easing your trip through the airport. The rules were current as of the Travel section's deadline last Tuesday, but they are ever changing. The TSA posts updated information on the Internet site

What to leave at home: For an extensive but not complete list, see the box on page L6. (The TSA Web site has a complete list.) In general, items that could be used as weapons are banned from carry-on bags although they may be allowed in checked bags. Some items are banned in both carry-on and checked bags.

Although unlikely in the case of routine oversights, you could, in theory, be subject to prosecution because "bringing a prohibited item to a security checkpoint -- even accidentally -- is illegal," the TSA says.

What not to put in your checked bag: unprocessed film. The new high-powered screening machines can damage it. Digital images and processed film are OK.

Undeveloped film that is slower than ASA/ISO 800 can safely go through X-ray machines that screen carry-ons, the TSA says. But if it goes through such machines more than five times, it may be damaged. In that case, have it hand inspected.

At U.S. airports, you can put unprocessed film in your carry-on or request hand inspection. It's a good idea to put film in clear canisters or plastic bags so inspectors will not have to open each canister. Some foreign airports may refuse to hand-check film.

How to check in: Soon after the terrorist attacks, passengers had to present a picture ID plus a paper ticket or e-ticket itinerary to get through security checkpoints. Late last year, the TSA began requiring a boarding pass before entering the checkpoints.

The TSA says the goal is to centralize screening at the checkpoints rather than conduct secondary screenings at the gates.

Nearly 100 airports had adopted this new boarding-pass policy as of last month, according to the TSA's Rhatigan. More are being added each week. At LAX, only Terminal 4 (American Airlines) had this policy as of Jan. 24, but it is expected to be expanded to the whole airport soon, said Tom Winfrey, an LAX spokesman.

You can get a boarding pass at airport ticket counters, at airline computer kiosks and from curbside skycaps. If you don't need to check bags, using a skycap or kiosk will spare you a trip to the ticket counter -- and sometimes long waits in line. A few airlines let you use a PC to print out your boarding pass.