Airport Security

Airport Security (Courtesy of U.S. Government)

In appearances before Congress, Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole has strongly defended the airport screening process that treats everyone the same, including infants and the elderly.

But in his latest testimony before a congressional panel, Pistole changed his tune and began talking about overhauling the system to focus on intelligence gathering and targeting those travelers the TSA knows the least about.

"Since I became TSA administrator, I have listened to ideas from people all over this country," he told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. As a result, he said, the agency is moving in the new direction by expanding several pilot security programs and changing the way children are searched at airport security checkpoints.

But don't expect the changes to cut down on the long lines at checkpoints during this holiday travel season. TSA's revised security procedures probably won't be expanded nationwide for several months, an agency spokesman said.

A test program that began last month at four airports — Miami, Dallas, Detroit and Atlanta — lets passengers who volunteer personal information zip through a special screening lane without having to remove their shoes or jackets. Pistole told lawmakers that it has worked so well that he wants to expand it to more airports.

"We are working closely with other airlines and airports to determine when they may be operationally ready to join," he said.

In another program that was tested at Boston's Logan International Airport, special behavior detection officers chat with passengers in the terminal to detect suspicious behavior. Pistole said the program was recently expanded to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport to collect more data on its effectiveness.

Pistole said the agency also has changed its policy for searching children younger than 12. TSA agents now have the discretion to pat down youngsters or require them to remove their shoes.

"By streamlining procedures for these lower-risk passengers through programs like these, TSA is better able to focus its finite resources on those who pose higher risks to transportation," he said.

Two airlines may be fined for stranding passengers

JetBlue Airways Corp. and the parent company for American Airlines could face stiff fines for stranding hundreds of passengers in planes on an airport tarmac for seven hours during a snowstorm last month, but a lawyer who specializes in business litigation says passengers probably can't sue over the ordeal.

JetBlue has apologized and offered to refund the airfares and pay for round-trip tickets for future travel for passengers on six JetBlue flights that were stranded on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Conn., during a heavy storm that disrupted thousands of flights.

Under U.S. Transportation Department rules, airlines that keep passengers in a grounded plane for three hours or more for domestic flights or four hours or more for international flights, can be fined up to $27,000 per passenger.

The agency is investigating both airlines, but a spokesman said the rules exempt airlines that keep passengers on the tarmac because trying to return them to the terminal disrupts airport operations or creates a safety or security problem.

Since the rule that took effect in April 2010, the agency has yet to fine any airline.

It's possible that the once-stranded passengers will get nothing more from the airline than the apology, the refunds and the extra airline tickets, said Hugh Totten, a Chicago attorney who has represented airlines in business litigation.

"While the new federal regulation limits tarmac delays to three hours, there are several exceptions to the rule," he said. "Exceptions such as 'disruption to airport operations' or 'passenger safety' have been put in place, leaving passengers with no leverage for filing suit."

hugo.martin@latimes.com