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Visiting TIA? Pull over, open up

Because of the higher terror alert, even vehicles that are just dropping off or picking up passengers may be searched.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003

TAMPA -- Drivers approaching Tampa International Airport's main terminal will encounter more than the routine jockeying for a curbside spot.

Now their vehicles are being searched for explosives.

The new searches are in response to the federal government's orange alert, the second highest, and began over the weekend. They complement the searches of vehicles that enter TIA's short-term parking garage and the more extensive luggage screening that began last month inside the terminal.

On Wednesday, many of the vehicles approaching the main terminal building to pick up or drop off passengers were waved to the curb by airport police. They were then searched by traffic examiners for anything that might resemble a large explosive.

At midmorning, not the airport's busiest time, as many as seven or eight vehicles waited in line for five examiners on the approach to the blue side departure area. Most searches took a minute or less, though waits could be longer during peak travel hours.

It appeared that drivers approaching the blue side departure area had about a 50-50 chance of being waved to the curb and inspected.

Rob Burr, the airport's director of operations, said vehicles anywhere on airport property might be searched.

The searches caused only minor delays.

One of the stopped drivers said he could have predicted that he would be chosen.

Joe Brooks of Fort Wayne, Ind., who spends six months a year in Zephyrhills, pulled a futuristic-looking enclosed motorcycle carrier that immediately caught the eye of airport police.

"Every time I haul that thing, somebody wants to have a look inside," said Brooks, who wore a cap with stitching outlining the towers of the World Trade Center with the words, "Ground Zero."

Most appeared to take the new searches in stride.

"When the police waved me into the right lane, I didn't know what was going on. I thought maybe there'd been some kind of accident," said Kevin James of Detroit, who was on vacation in Clearwater and went to TIA on Tuesday to drop off a friend. "This stuff is tedious, but I guess it's all necessary."

Airport police and traffic personnel appeared to wave taxis, airport limos and car rental buses past the road block. Airport officials would not say whether this is routine practice or whether those vehicles are also subject to searches. Nearly everyone driving a van, a sport utility vehicle or other large vehicle appeared to be searched.

Richard Percy of Watertown, N.Y., who came to the airport to drop off relatives, hadn't expected the search but didn't mind it.

"They were all nice," Percy said. "They asked me if it was all right to do the search. Sure, why not? I've got nothing to hide."

While federal officials have said they expect the alert status to be scaled back to yellow soon, airport officials have not decided whether the new inspections will end at the same time. Given the opportunity earlier in the year to end the vehicle searches at the short-term parking garage, they chose to continue them.

"If we stopped the checks at the garage, and then the alert status went higher and we had to start up again, we'd have 2,000 cars in the garage that hadn't been examined," said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. "It's not the same at the terminal. We could stop and start those, but we haven't decided yet if we will."

The Feb. 7 move to orange alert was the first since Sept. 10, the day before the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Only a red alert is higher.

At TIA, vehicles targeted for searches are picked by airport police officers under federal criteria that have not been disclosed. The searches are conducted by the same traffic personnel who work the entrances to the short-term parking garage.

As at the garage, luggage is not searched at the curb. That task occurs inside the terminal building during check-in and boarding. In the vehicle searches, security personnel are looking for an explosive charge large enough to bring down the terminal.

Because such a charge would be difficult to hide, searchers need take only a cursory look inside a vehicle to clear it.

At St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, Pinellas sheriff's deputies are sporadically searching cars that pull up to the terminal for pickup and dropoff.

Airport users across the country are encountering similar scenes.

According to the American Association of Airport Executives, police at Minneapolis-St. Paul International are searching vehicles along roads inbound to the airport and at two terminals.

At Dallas/Fort Worth International, police are visually inspecting and randomly searching all vehicles entering the airport and have closed one-hour parking on the upper level of the terminal garages. Reno/Tahoe International announced that all vehicles entering the airport will be subjected to random inspections before approaching the terminal building.

At Indianapolis International, the taxi holding lane at the terminal was closed, large vehicles are prohibited from using the upper or lower level terminal roadways, all landside delivery trucks must park in the surface lot, and commercial vehicles are inspected before being permitted on the terminal roadways.

At Miami International, vehicles on its roadways are subject to random inspection.

At TIA, the police ask for permission to search vehicles only as a courtesy.

"It's not an option," Miller said. "If someone refuses, the police deal with it."

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