Airline passengers and officials said Thursday that they have seen few delays in the days since tougher baggage screening rules were implemented, but the real test for the system is not expected until this weekend, when travelers return to the airports in force.
Midnight on New Year's Eve marked the congressionally mandated deadline to screen 100% of checked airline baggage for explosives -- about 2 million bags per day. Federal officials said that each of the nation's 429 commercial airports met the deadline for checking all luggage, although a few airports could not install screening machines in time and were forced to use alternate methods.
Some passenger groups and aviation officials feared gridlock and massive delays because of the screening requirement, but Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nico Melendez said that things were going "extremely well."
"We've not heard word of any significant delays," he said.
Airport officials said that the relatively hassle-free check-ins were mostly due to smaller holiday crowds and that Sunday or Monday could be the first real test of the new system. Unlike the busy travel days around Thanksgiving, this week's holiday and vacation travel is spread out over a longer period, with some airports reporting much smaller crowds than normal the last two days.
Around the country, from Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport to Washington's Dulles International to O'Hare International in Chicago, most travelers reported little trouble and were happy that additional security was in place.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport spokesman Bob Parker said he was not aware of any delays because of the new procedures. Passengers also seemed to be taking the new precautions in stride.
Ralph Riley, 46, was returning to Chicago on Thursday and said the extra steps added "maybe 10 minutes to the process."
Although lines were moving well at the American Airlines terminal at O'Hare on Thursday, several passengers compared the wait with "the post office on income tax day." There had been some complaints about long lines at Chicago's Midway Airport on Wednesday.
The TSA has a goal of screening 100% of bags electronically with either trace detection machines, which test for explosive residue on a bag, or larger explosive detection machines, which use X-rays like a CT scan to look for suspicious materials inside luggage.
Some airports, however, were not able to obtain or install the machines before the Dec. 31 deadline and instead relied on hand searches of luggage, the use of bomb-sniffing dogs and other methods. The TSA said this week that with more than 1,000 explosive detection machines and 4,600 trace detection machines in place, more than 90% of bags can be screened electronically, compared with only 5% before Sept. 11, 2001.
Procedures associated with the bag-screening process continue to evolve, however. Melendez said that the TSA would supply airlines with "tamper- evident" seals in the coming weeks to help alleviate concerns about theft or loss when bags are opened. Passengers can attach the seals, which resemble plastic zip ties, and the TSA will cut the seals if the bag needs to be opened and attach another when the inspection is done, he said.
The plastic ties can be broken by "strong hands" or with a house or car key, Melendez said, so passengers -- who can no longer carry penknives or sharp scissors in their carry-on luggage -- shouldn't worry about being locked out of their own bags.
Currently, Melendez said, there is no outward sign that a bag has been searched, but a note from the TSA will be placed inside the bag with a toll-free number for complaints or questions.
The agency has asked airline passengers to follow suggested packing procedures -- such as spreading out books to avoid creating a thick pile and putting dense food items such as chocolate or cheese in carry-ons -- and to leave bags unlocked.
At Washington's Dulles airport, US Airways passenger Haywood Paul said Thursday that while he had heard about the new procedures, they didn't affect the way he packed his bag. Paul's bags were screened in one of the six large scanning machines installed in public areas of the terminal. While the process only cost him a few minutes, it was "awkward," he said. "If they're going to run [all] the bags through that way, it's really going to be a pain."
Melanie Hayman, 64, who had traveled from Indianapolis to visit her daughter and grandchildren in the Seattle area, called the new screening process "common sense."
"I have no problem with it if I have to wait a little longer," she said. "They opened my bag at the table, checked it out, and found no problems. They were very professional. If we care about safety, we ought to be willing to spend a little extra time."
Times staff writers John Beckham in Chicago, Lynn Marshall in Seattle, Lianne Hart in Houston and Alan C. Miller in Washington contributed to this report.