Image: Screening shoes
Phil Coale  /  AP
TSA is urging travelers to put shoes directly on the X-ray conveyer belt, not in the plastic bin, so that workers can screen them more effectively.
Image:
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/28/2009 9:58:13 AM ET 2009-05-28T13:58:13

My husband is an angel. Make that an Angel.

He didn’t start out that way. And he’s certainly not angelic all of the time. But years ago, a government-issued ID card came back in the mail with a one-letter typo that switched his middle name from Ansel to Angel. He’s never taken the time to figure out how to change it back.

In general, it hasn’t really mattered. And over the years we’ve gotten some giggles out of the goof.

But now that the TSA is rolling out its new rules for the collection of passenger information, my husband may have to fix the problem or be an Angel whenever he flies with that piece of ID.

TSA initiated the first public phase of its Secure Flight program in early May, asking travelers to book airline tickets using full names, exactly as they are printed on a driver’s license or passport. In phase two, effective in mid-August, passengers will also be required to list their birthday and gender when booking. (I wonder what transgender travelers will be asked to do.)

What happens to all that information? Airlines will be required to collect it and forward it on to TSA, which will use all that information to check the names on all airline passenger lists against government watch lists.

The airlines used to be responsible for cross-checking on their own, but they weren’t doing a very good job of it. The TSA believes it can do better and plans to be doing all the screening procedures by sometime in late 2010.

Until then, TSA officials say you don’t have to worry too much about getting hassled at the security checkpoint if your ticket is issued for someone named Timmy when your driver’s license says your name is really Timothy. “You will not be turned away,” says TSA spokesperson Andrea McCauley. “But as the program phases in, we’re asking passengers to please use their full first names and to give their full middle names if they’re prompted to do so by their airline.”

Bin there, done that?
The Transportation Security Administration is also adding a new wrinkle to the airport security checkpoint experience. This time it’s a change in what you do with your shoes.

You’ll still need to take off your shoes. Even if you choose to just wear sandals or flip-flops. (Then, ick, you’ll have to walk barefoot through the metal detector and down the line until you’re reunited with your stuff.)

But now, instead of putting your shoes into a plastic bin along with your purse, wallet, belt, coat, fanny-pack and toiletries-filled Ziploc baggie, the TSA would like you to instead put your shoes directly onto the moving conveyer belt. “Right now we’re asking people to do that; not telling them,” says TSA’s McCauley. “The key is to isolate shoes as much as possible so screeners can screen them more effectively.”

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You’re still free to put you shoes in a bin with all your other stuff, but McCauley says don’t be surprised if your shoes end up going back through the X-ray machine a second time, or getting a secondary hand screening if a TSA officer can’t get a clear picture.

Some travelers may be irritated by this change in the program. It does create one more opportunity for your belongings to go missing. But I think this shoes-out-of-the-bin bit is a great idea and I wish it would have been part of the security procedure from the get-go. And not just because it gives TSA screeners an uncluttered view of our stuff and a better chance at finding things that don’t belong.

I’m all for banning footwear from the bins because it always seems really unsanitary and, at times, sort of gross to have to put my plastic bag of cosmetics, a just dry-cleaned blazer, and a freshly purchased meal into a plastic bin that has just transported someone’s muddy boots or stinky sneakers.

While officially talking about safety and security, I asked McCauley to share details about TSA’s program for ensuring clean bins at airport security checkpoints. I was expecting to hear how they are wiped out with sanitizing clothes a couple of time a day, or at least at the end of each day.

Turns out the bins, along with divesture and composure tables, are made possible by advertising dollars, and are cleaned on an “as needed” basis.

So I give a big thumbs-up to the shoes-out-of-the-bins idea. But after recently celebrating my 39th birthday — again — I give a thumbs-down to having to divulge my real age to the folks at TSA.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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