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Much of the problem, in the view of Baumgartner, is the rush to have some bag-screening system--any bag-screening system--in place by the congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31. He is one of 39 airport managers who sent a letter to the TSA on May 29 appealing for the deadline to be extended. The message may have finally got through to Congress; Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, will introduce a bill this week that will give airports more flexibility in meeting bag-screening requirements and allow them to come up with individualized plans.
Bags that might be carrying bombs are just one security concern that Denver is dealing with. Another is the large number of people--fuelers, caterers, baggage handlers--who have access to planes on the airfield. Even before Sept. 11, Denver had a program called Always Challenge Everybody, which urged all airport employees to question unauthorized people in secure areas and report suspicious activities--and offered gifts from airport concessionaires and vouchers for airline tickets as a reward. Since Sept. 11, the airport has also beefed up its background checks, for the first time screening all employees, not just newly hired ones. The airlines have also tightened their background checks of employees, and so have airport vendors and subcontractors. McDonald's lost a number of workers who turned out to be illegal aliens, depleting its staff so quickly, according to airport sources, that one airport outlet had to be temporarily shut down. (McDonald's denies that it employed undocumented workers and says the closing was due to the voluntary departure of several employees.) Badges for people on the tarmac are checked constantly, and undercover agents occasionally walk about looking for suspicious sorts. But some question how useful all this scrutiny is. A private security guard checking IDs on a service road inside the airport seemed unsure which documents she was supposed to be examining and for what. "I keep getting conflicting reports," she said. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be looking for now."
The most visible sign of increased airport security since Sept. 11, of course, is the now familiar screening gauntlet that passengers must go through before entering the gate areas. The obsession, early on, with even the most innocent of personal items has been relaxed somewhat. A sign near the ticket counters in Denver informs flyers that nail clippers, tweezers and syringes--WITH PROOF OF MEDICAL NEED--are now allowed after inspection. Yet plenty of verboten items--knives, screwdrivers, scissors--are still being confiscated. Since these items are not saved or returned to passengers, flyers in Denver started burying them in planters near the entrance to Concourse A, intending to pick them up after their return flight. The planters got so full that the airport had to remove them.