inspections not realistic
Question: I recently returned from a trip to the mainland and I found my suitcase sealed with a blue plastic tab. Inside the suitcase was a printed note from the Transportation Security Administration saying that my suitcase was opened and the contents physically inspected. First of all, I felt violated that my personal belongings were inspected by someone. Secondly, I wonder if a male inspector went through my possessions. I wondered if the inspector goes through every piece of clothing including underwear, medication, personal feminine hygiene items, etc. I would like to know if a female inspects female passenger bags and a male inspects male passenger bags. Is the inspection done where the public is nearby or is the inspection done in an enclosed area away from public view?
Answer: Every piece of baggage that is checked in with an airline is now electronically screened, with those that sound an alarm, as well as a random number of bags, set aside for manual inspections.
It would be "rather impossible" to have a procedure in which male inspectors check only the bags of male passengers and female inspectors check only female bags, "because you don't really know whose is what," said Nico Melendez, spokesman for the TSA's Pacific Region.
"Whenever we open bags, we always have supervisors on site to ensure there is no pilfering," he said. Before Sept. 11, 2001, only about 5 percent of bags checked in at U.S. airports were screened, Melendez noted in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress mandated that the TSA screen all checked bags by the end of 2002.
"For the last 15 months or so, we've been screening 100 percent of the bags for explosives that go into the belly of an aircraft," Melendez said.
The bags are all first screened using electronic systems, which include machines able to detect traces of explosives, he said.
If an alarm is sounded by the electronic screening, a bag will be physically inspected. Unfortunately, everyday products may set off an alarm.
For instance, Melendez said, there are some types of hand lotion that contain glycerin and "glycerin is an element of some explosives." If a traveler uses lotion with glycerin, then checks in luggage at the airport, "we can find that trace of explosive that was in the hand lotion that was transferred to the piece of baggage," he said. "It will set off the alarm. Then we will go in and open that particular bag to insure there is no explosive."
Inspectors experience the same thing with golf bags, he said, because trace explosives can be found in fertilizers used on golf courses.
"Passengers come into contact with this stuff and it shows up in bags," Melendez said. "So, in effect, our equipment is doing exactly what it's supposed to do."
The TSA also selects a random number of bags for manual inspections. However, "we don't go into the specifics of this because it goes into security information which we don't disclose," he said.
The TSA, for the past two years, has been on a "significant public education campaign" to let passengers know what to expect under the more vigorous security screening procedures, Melendez said.
Foremost, passengers have been advised to "keep your bags unlocked so we don't have to break a lock to get into it," he said.
"Second of all, if you're concerned about someone touching your personal items, like your underwear or your toiletries, put them in a Ziploc plastic bag, so we can just touch the bag -- we don't have to touch the personal belongings," he said. "We don't want to invade anyone's privacy any more than anyone else wants us to invade their privacy."
The TSA inspects millions of bags every day at 440 airports nationwide. The fact is, post-9/11, "security is no longer a spectator sport," Melendez said. "We need passengers to take responsibility when they come to the airport."
He advised passengers to go to the TSA's Web site at www.tsatraveltips.us to get information about security measures and what you should not pack in your bags.
Last-minute tax help
The tax deadline is fast approaching (April 15 is Thursday), but for some procrastinators -- namely those with incomes of $35,000 or less -- there's still a chance for free, last-minute tax help.
The Hawaii Asset Building Coalition, with the Internal Revenue Service, is offering this free aid from 3:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, at the Goodwill Store, classrooms 3 and 4, 1085 S. Beretania St.
It's first come, first served and people are encouraged to arrive early. Electronic filing will be available.
Not only can you get help with filing the 2003 federal return, but for prior year federal returns, according to IRS spokeswoman Shawn George.
"This is an opportunity for persons who have not filed their 2000 tax return who have a refund coming to get assistance in claiming that refund before the deadline," she said "They must file their 2000 return by April 15 of this year or lose their refund."
George explained some people who have refunds coming don't file, while others may have incomes so low that they don't have any filing requirement.
"The law says that taxpayers have only three years from the date the return is due to claim their refund (for the 2000 return, that's this year)," George said. "After that, it is too late. It is also too late for people to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, which can be a substantial amount of money for people with lower incomes."
To take advantage of the free help, bring a photo ID and Social Security card (or individual taxpayer identification number) for yourself, your spouse and dependents, as well as this year's tax package (if available), W-2 forms, interest and dividend statements, a copy of last year's return, and any other information about income and expenses for 2003 and all other years for which you want help. Both spouses must be present to sign the required forms for joint e-filed returns.
More on bus seating
>> Regarding able-bodied people not giving up seats to the elderly or disabled (Kokua Line, April 5): I am disabled and observe the seating practices on buses. I have yet to see a disabled person not get a seat. Someone usually gets up to let a disabled person sit; unfortunately, it's a senior citizen who gives up the seat. I have seen seniors standing while an able-bodied person is sitting. What happened to the days when people automatically would let women sit first and not even think twice about giving seats to our elderly or disabled? -- Alvin Noguchi
>> I'm disabled and qualify to ride the Handi-Van, but I sometimes ride TheBus. The bus driver who sees my ID would know that I have a right to sit there. But I don't have a cane and once I'm seated, there is nothing to indicate that I am entitled to sit in the priority-seating area. There are also young people who may be disabled but not visibly so. The same thing is true with disabled parking placards. People sometimes look askance at those of us who don't have either visible disabilities or use assistive devices. That's something for people to consider. -- No Name
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