Special Reports

Sea-Tac faces 'impossible' baggage task

More than 1.3 million bags are checked and transported each day through the 400 commercial airports across the nation. By Dec. 31, the government wants each piece of luggage scanned for explosives.

That's not possible, says Gina Marie Lindsey, director of aviation for the Port of Seattle, which runs Sea-Tac Airport.

Last month, Lindsey and directors of 133 airports nationwide asked the U.S. Senate to push back the scanning deadline one year. The Senate has scheduled discussion of the issue for later this month.

To meet the requirements, Sea-Tac could use two types of scanners.

Explosives-detection machines are mammoth devices, so large they will require that buildings be remodeled to accommodate them. Eventually they will be located behind the check-in counters, which will force reconstruction of all the luggage conveyor belt systems.

Another approach is the use of tracer machines. They are smaller, but many more units would have to be installed.

The News Tribune sat down with Lindsey to discuss the security system requirements.

Q: What led Sea-Tac to join the other 132 airports across the country to ask the Senate to delay the baggage screening deadline?

A: It was a realization that TSA (Transportation Security Administration) wasn't going to find a way for us to scan all the baggage and process customers while still maintaining anything resembling customer service.

Q: What obstacles would have to be overcome before the deadline?

A: The biggest challenge is changing the facility to accommodate the machines and still have space for passenger processing.

Q: The letter to the Senate stated that there would be serious consequences if airports rushed to meet the deadline. Can you expand on that?

A: The serious consequences are twofold.

First, it is very unwise to go for such a huge facility investment to accommodate a short-time mess. Secondly, the resulting passenger processing will be very, very bad.

Q: If the Senate does not move back the deadline a year, will Sea-Tac be able to meet the schedule?

A: It's not really possible. There are too many issues.

If we brought in tracers, passengers would have to queue up all the way through the parking garages. There would be no room in the lobby.

If we (are required to) have explosives-detection machines, we couldn't get them because there aren't enough out there. Even if enough did exist, we would have to reinforce the building.

Q: Do you think passengers and the public understand what is being asked of the nation's airports?

A: I doubt it.

Q: What do you think would help them grasp the crush the airports are in?

A: Probably a little more discussion of the issues in the media.

I will give you an analogy I use. If you picture your home - I use a home because everyone can relate - you normally have one washer and one dryer. What if all of a sudden you had 30 washers and dryers and then you tried to go about your business? Could your household function? Absolutely not.

Q: Do you have any of the baggage-scanning machinery?

A: We have four explosives-detection machines: one in United (Airlines), one in Alaska, one in the ticketing office of American and one in the Northwest line.

Q: How many would you need?

A: Between 35 and 40. And if we were to use tracer machines, we would need 140.

Q: With this expectation placed upon the airport, how many hours a week to do you spend at work?

A: Golly, I guess it's about 60 to 65 hours a week. But that doesn't count for all the time my staff is putting in. We have an incredible team working here now, and everyone is going all out.

Jamila Johnson: 253-597-8658


Sea-Tac facts

Operators: Sea-Tac Airport is run by the Port of Seattle's aviation division.

History: United Airlines first touched down at Sea-Tac in 1944.

Passengers: 27,036,074 passengers came through in 2001.

Cargo: 456,920 metric tons of air cargo moved through in 2001.

Sept. 11 - one year later

This week, we look at the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks on South Sound businesses:

Sunday: A year after the terrorist attacks, thousands have been laid off in the Puget Sound region.

Today: Sea-Tac Airport director Gina Marie Lindsey says it's not possible to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing luggage scanners to detect explosives.

Tuesday: We're 3,000 miles away from ground zero, yet the Puget Sound regional economy has been shaken by Sept. 11 events more than some parts of the country.

Wednesday: How Northwest companies' stocks fared in the past year.