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At LAX, It’s Belts Over Bins

Times Staff Writers

Southern California travelers adapted quickly to stringent new security rules Friday, with Los Angeles International Airport recording a 40% increase in checked luggage and officials noticing much less jostling for space aboard planes.

The requirements banned passengers from packing nearly all liquids -- including water, cosmetics and lotions -- in their carry-on luggage, prompting many simply to check everything to avoid the hassle.

But the dramatic behavior shift at LAX and other Southland airports caused new worries as well as problems that tried travelers’ patience.

The increase in the amount of checked baggage raised concerns that at peak hours, more passengers would have to wait in lines at LAX. Security experts have repeatedly warned that long lines are vulnerable to possible terrorist attacks. LAX is the state’s No. 1 terrorist target and was at the center of a foiled bomb plot in 1999.

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Unlike other airports, space-constrained LAX was forced to install truck-size machines that scan checked luggage for explosives in terminal lobbies. As a result, passengers are required to wait with their bags until the bags pass through the machines. At other Southland airports, including Bob Hope and John Wayne, the machines are installed in baggage systems, out of passengers’ way.

Additional checked luggage strained LAX’s 1960s-era baggage system to its limits. Three miles of aging belts that crisscross the lower levels of the airport’s nine terminals struggled to carry the extra load, leading to delays getting bags onto aircraft and baggage carousels.

“I just want to get my stuff. I don’t want to be waiting here anymore,” said Annemari Kerr, a Chicago homemaker who was visiting a friend in Los Angeles. She waited more than 40 minutes to retrieve her bag at the United Airlines terminal.

Flights were already running close to 100% full during the busiest summer travel season in five years, prompting carriers to worry whether they could fit extra baggage into crowded cargo holds. Many airlines brought in extra workers to load and unload additional bags on the tarmac and to stand by in case baggage belts at ticket counters broke down. LAX already handles more checked baggage than any other airport in the country.

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Airport security officials also scrambled to provide enough workers to keep up with the increase in checked baggage.

“This is an extraordinary strain on our staffing,” said Larry Fetters, the federal security director at LAX for the Transportation Security Administration, which manages the country’s security screeners. The TSA canceled days off for screeners and required them to work 12-hour shifts.

In addition, about 200 National Guard troops arrived at LAX on Friday to help implement the measures. Officials have said the restrictions probably are temporary but have not said when they might be lifted.

Some city leaders questioned Friday whether federal security officials had enough screeners at LAX to cope with the demands of the new requirements during the busy summer season.

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“I can’t call the TSA to task for how they have handled things in the last 48 hours,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who has repeatedly expressed concern about the security risks of long lines at LAX. “But I can hold them to account for failing to staff up to proper levels this summer.”

The city’s airport agency plans to start building a $390-million baggage system underneath the terminals at LAX early next year. It will include 53 explosive-detection machines and will create up to 40% more space for passengers to circulate in terminal lobbies, said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security for the agency.

Airport and airline officials were left to marvel Friday at the sudden change in the way passengers dealt with their luggage. Instead of trying to cram all they could into carry-on cases, they checked most of their items to avoid the searches required under the new rules.

“There are acres of space in overhead bins today,” said Len Sloper, a consultant to the airport agency, after an impromptu survey Friday of flight attendant managers at LAX.

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In a sign of the shift, trash bins set aside for newly banned items were nearly empty Friday, with the odd lip balm or bottle of water cropping up here and there.

Airlines reported few delays at LAX, except on flights bound for London. Passengers heading to Britain endured lengthy waits as carriers again required them to carry only essential items such as wallets and eyeglasses in clear pouches and check everything else.

“I shoved everything in my bag and gave it away,” said Clarice Atakhanian of Los Angeles, who was traveling through Heathrow on her way to Vienna for a vacation.

“I just hope they have a good movie tonight,” she said.

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Atakhanian waited 2 1/2 hours to check her luggage at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, only to find that her 3:30 p.m. flight had been delayed four hours.

Some minimalists carried nothing as they approached a second screening at the gate area. In Terminal 4, Santa Barbara resident Thomas Kennedy carried only a few work papers in his jacket pocket as he boarded a flight to New York for a vacation.

“I like to have a carry-on with me, but because of these new rules, I just decided to check it all in,” he said, adding that his girlfriend had a book for him in her purse in case he got bored.

Southern California’s smaller airports also reported an increase in checked bags, with Long Beach seeing a 20% jump. At Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, officials said they increased staffing to make sure luggage was distributed evenly so conveyor belts wouldn’t jam. Ticket lines at John Wayne Airport were noticeably longer because of more travelers checking bags, a spokeswoman said.

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Companies that ship luggage ahead for travelers reported a boom in business Friday, saying inquiries increased 80% after Thursday’s arrest of two dozen people suspected of plotting to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners with liquid explosives. Such services are fairly new and typically appeal to frequent, more affluent travelers, who sign up online.

“I don’t need my bag from the moment I’m done packing it until the moment I get to the hotel, so why am I dragging it to the airport, standing around to check it in and then waiting for it when I get off the plane?” said Zeke Adkins, co-founder of Boston-based Luggage Forward, explaining why air travelers use his service. About 40% of the 2-year-old company’s shipments originate or end up in California, he said.

Security experts said Friday that the federal government should consider keeping the new restrictions in place until officials figure out how to screen passengers for volatile liquids. The changes also prompted some to call for tightening overall restrictions on carry-on luggage.

“We’re wedded to these large carry-on bags that go into the overhead packed with all of these things,” said David M. Stone, former head of the TSA. “At some point that’s going to be an unacceptable risk.”

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Times staff writer Erika Hayasaki contributed to this report.


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