Tucson latest Arizona airport to roll out new TSA screening policy

Travelers are required to separate electronic devices larger than a cell phone from other luggage at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Washington Dulles International Airport. (Photo by Andrew Nicla/Cronkite News)

Lisa Farbstein, a Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman, explains how something as small as an e-reader or a child’s electronic gaming device could be used to hide explosives. (Photo by Isaac Windes/Cronkite News)

Transportation Security Administration officials disassembled a laptop to show how such everyday electronic devices can be taken apart and used to hide explosives. (Photo by Isaac Windes/Cronkite News)

DULLES, Virginia – Tucson International last week became the latest airport in Arizona to roll out enhanced security measures that will require travelers to put any electronic device larger than a cell phone into a separate bin.

The added step is needed “to stay ahead of evolving threats to the transportation system,” a Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman said recently, as she demonstrated how devices as simple as an e-reader or electronic children’s toy could house dangerous explosives.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was one of 10 where the new process was tested earlier this year, before a nationwide rollout that began this summer. With the addition of Tucson last week – and expected addition of Yuma International Airport this week, according to a TSA statement – nine commercial airports in Arizona will require the new check.

Charles Sparks, TSA’s assistant federal security director, who is based in Tucson, said in a release that the screening changes are “part of our efforts to stay ahead of evolving threats to the transportation system.” He said TSA officers would “be available in front of the checkpoint X-ray machines to guide passengers through the changes” at Tucson.

At a demonstration Friday at Washington Dulles International Airport, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein called the latest measure “the next step in enhancing aviation security.”

“We are doing this because we know that the threat is real,” Farbstein said. “We know that terrorists are out there.”

The changes will not affect travelers in the TSA PreCheck program – a fact that sparked criticism from Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers.

Kidd said that by not applying these measures to everyone, the TSA is only enforcing “half-measures” that amount to “just more busy work at the airports.”

“If you are going to have security measures, let’s have security measures,” Kidd said.

-Cronkite News video by Andrew Nicla

But Farbstein – who showed how explosives were found in everyday electronic devices – said the pilot programs, including the one in Phoenix, were a success.

“We found that the screening procedures at the airports that piloted this project have seen enhanced security,” she said. “It has gone very smoothly and so we are rolling it out nationwide.”

While the new measures could add time to security checkpoints, Farbstein said they should not have much of an impact because “people have been doing something very similar with their laptops for years.”

The TSA is also recommending, but not requiring, that travelers remove food items from their carry-ons since some foods – Farbstein used bananas as an example – have a consistency that can be confused with explosives.

“Oftentimes … food products have the consistency that would be similar to explosive devices,” Farbstein said, adding that taking those items out of your bag can help speed the process for other travelers.

TSA Deputy Administrator Huban Gowadia announced the national rollout in July, as TSA agents across the nation are trained.

“It is critical for TSA to constantly enhance and adjust screening procedures by separating personal electronic items such as laptops, tablets, e-readers and handheld game consoles for screening,” Gowadia said then.

In addition to Tucson and Sky Harbor, the TSA said Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airports in Flagstaff, Prescott, Bullhead City, Page and Show Low have instituted the new procedures with Yuma expected by the end of this month.

As security threats continue to evolve and change, Farbstein said policies will change to ensure passenger safety. “We need to stay one step ahead of the terrorists,” she said.

Kidd agreed that the threats are a real thing, but said he “is not sure what they are trying to accomplish” with a lot of their efforts, which he said “really should be getting more public input.”