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With holiday rush, airport stepping up explosives detection

By Maria-Jose Subiria

msubiria@news-daily.com

Officials at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport are expecting an increase in passenger volume throughout the facility's "100 Days of Summer" program, which began on Wednesday -- in advance of the Memorial Day weekend -- and will end on Labor Day, Sept. 6, according to John Kennedy, senior public relations manager at the airport.

"Overall, we handle numbers everyday, it just happens to be more this time ... We have to ensure adequate staffing for our facilities, from parking, security, to concessions, to accommodate the larger numbers in the summer months, Kennedy explained.

As the Memorial Day weekend approaches, the world's busiest airport is expecting to receive 1.9 million passengers over the next seven days, which is a 2-percent increase from last year's travel numbers, said Robert Kennedy (not related to John Kennedy), assistant general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson.

John Kennedy said the travel numbers were based on flights booked over the next seven days that were provided to the city's Department of Aviation by the airlines.

Robert Kennedy said the increase in passenger travel may come from the array of direct-flight options the airport offers travelers. It also demonstrates "a good, positive sign for the economy," he said.

Passengers, who have not traveled since last summer, however, should be aware that they may be instructed to participate in random checks for traces of explosives, said Jon Allen, Southeast public affairs manager for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

TSA is increasing random usage of the Explosives Trace Detection portable units, at Hartsfield-Jackson, said Mary Leftridge Byrd, federal security director for TSA.

TSA decided to increase the random usage of the units, after a terror incident that occurred on Dec. 25, 2009, in Detroit, Mich., according to Allen.

On Dec. 26, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man, was charged with trying to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight with an explosive device attached to his body, as the airplane neared Detroit Metro Airport, according to the Associated Press. Abdulmutallab set off the device, but instead of an explosion, the device sparked a fire.

After the incident, the trace-evidence units were tested at five airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson, said Allen. Since the units are portable, he said, they can be used anywhere in the airport, not just at checkpoint areas, which could help minimize increases in passenger wait-times.

To perform the checks for traces of explosives, TSA officers use a cotton swab to brush a passenger's hands, which takes approximately two seconds. Then, the swab is inserted into an Explosives Trace Detection unit. The unit detects the content on the swab in less than 10 seconds, Allen said. If there are traces of explosives present, an alarm will sound, and additional screening will be conducted to determine if a threat is involved, Allen added.

"It [alarm sounding off] simply means we need to look at that passenger more closely," he said. Allen said TSA officers also use the portable units to detect explosive traces on carry-on luggage, and checked luggage, by placing the swab on a wand to brush the bags.

"It has been effective on checked bags and carry-on bags," he said.