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Washington airport reopens

Among the many signs of heightened security are bomb-sniffing dogs, National Guardsmen and frisk searches.

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 5, 2001


ARLINGTON, Va. -- Sniff-sniff-sniff, sniff-sniff-sniff.

Pasja poked her nose in the seat cushions of the US Airways plane and skeptically nudged the Attache magazines in the seat pockets.

No bomb.

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[Times photos: Name Here]
Spc. Lisa Etheridge, left, and Staff Sgt. Gary Meents, members of a Virginia Beach, Va., National Guard unit, patrol as military police in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as the airport prepares to have its first flight liftoff Thursday morning.
She went row by row through the plane, sniff-sniff-sniff, sniff-sniff-sniff, and even climbed on a seat to take a few whiffs of the overhead bins. Still nothing.

A few minutes and a thousand sniffs later, Pasja determined the plane was safe. Flight 6858 was ready to fly.

A month ago, the Belgian Malinois dog did considerably less sniffing inside planes. She focused on the terminal buildings at Dulles and Reagan National airports and checked the occasional suspicious bag.

But when Reagan National reopened Thursday after being closed for 22 days, Pasja and several other bomb dogs increased their patrols on airplanes.

The dog platoon was one of many signs of heightened security. Passengers had to show ID three times before they could board a plane. Many also got checked by an electronic wand and some people were frisked.

Surveying the action from the upper concourse of the airport were mean-looking U.S. marshals in black turtlenecks, with .40-caliber handguns strapped to their legs.

Yet the normally busy airport was virtually empty. Only 25 percent of the flights were operating and many were less than half full.

"There are more security people here than passengers -- so I feel very safe," said Mary Starr Ross, a Washington lobbyist who was headed to a wedding in Colorado.

More than a dozen dignitaries and elected officials came for the first flight of the day, a US Airways shuttle to New York. Only a handful of Real People took the flight and they were swarmed by reporters before they boarded.

"You're a part of history today!" a radio reporter gushed to a Washington architect who was getting on the plane.

The passengers said they were happy with the additional security and had no qualms about flying.

"It actually makes you feel a little more secure," said Brian McMillan, a Verizon E-business employee.

Alin Boswell, a US Airways flight attendant and an official for the Association of Flight Attendants, said he was glad to see the additional security at Reagan National but was concerned that other airports were not getting the same attention.

"It's great that this is going on ... but it should be this way at every airport," he said.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who visited Reagan National on Thursday morning, said some airports deserve heightened security.

"I don't think every airport has to be like this," Mineta said. "There are not Fort Knoxes everywhere. We have to measure the risk."

Mineta and airline officials said there were many security measures not visible to the public. President Bush promised to have more sky marshals on the Reagan National flights, but federal officials won't say how many are being used. The sky marshals are said to travel undercover in disguises such as students and priests.

On Thursday, many passengers and airport employees at Reagan National wore American flag buttons. But no one bought the commemorative Pentagon and World Trade Center T-shirts that a vendor was selling near the airline ticket counters.

The vendor, Etsehiwot Ejigu, said she was surprised none had been sold, especially since they were such a bargain at three-for-$20.

"Maybe tomorrow will be good," she sighed. Ejigu said she still believed that the patriotic shirts would become her top seller, replacing her usual No. 1 item, a shirt with a picture of a rose that says "Special Lady -- Washington, D.C."

Pasja, a brown dog who resembles a lean German shepherd, was accompanied Thursday by Cpl. Steven Cronberry of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Department. Cronberry described his partner as a dedicated employee who works for low pay -- a bowl of Science Diet and an occasional chance to play with a red ball.

"She's very headstrong," he said as they patrolled the US Airways gates.

She also has an amazing nose for detecting explosives. Cronberry likens her ability to being able to walk into a room of 100 cheeseburgers and immediately find the one that contains a pickle.

With only 10 bomb-sniffing dogs, the airport does not have enough dogpower to check every flight. But officials said Thursday they plan to randomly check many planes every day -- far more than they have done in the past.

Cronberry said his biggest challenge with Pasja, as with managing any employee, is keeping her motivated.

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