Airports What Not To Wear

November 10, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Where there's a void in the market, there's always an entrepreneur eager to fill it. In the post-9/11 era of tightened airport security, retailers have come to the rescue with "airport friendly" or "beep-free" gear designed to help travelers get through security checkpoints and metal detectors faster.

The Transportation Security Administration encourages airline passengers to avoid wearing shoes, clothing, jewelry and accessories that contain metal. It advises against hidden body piercings, as well.

Airport friendly products include shoes with shanks made of thermal plastic and Fiberglass instead of metal, suspenders with plastic clasps, belts with "iron grip" Velcro or nonmetallic buckles, bras with metal-free clasps and underwires made of resin, and shirts and pants with plastic buttons and nylon zippers.

Leo Bullian, owner of LJ Bullian Clothiers, said so-called airport friendly clothing isn't exactly a hot topic of conversation in the clothing industry. He's only seen interest in the apparel from customers who fly a tremendous amount. They'll look for clothing, for instance, that has Velcro instead of metal closures, he said.

Bullian's store carries a line of shoes by footwear manufacturer Allen Edmonds, which the manufacturer boasts "are literally built to fly." The message on the shoe box is: "We fly through airports." Shoemakers Rockport and Florsheim, among others, also market several shoe styles minus metal shanks and target them to frequent fliers.

With or without metal shanks, everybody has to take off their shoes these days to pass through security checkpoints, even if they're just wearing sandals, said John Mumma, federal security director at FordInternationalAirport. Why? Because many types of footwear can be used to conceal prohibited items. Recall Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber," who in December 2001 botched an attempt to blow up an American Airlines plane by igniting explosives hidden in his shoes.

The shoe removal requirement has been ongoing since Aug. 10. It was in August that British authorities foiled a terrorist attempt to blow up as many as 10 aircraft mid-flight between the United States and Britain using explosives smuggled on board in carry-on luggage, and that incident further changed how Americans fly.

"In the threat uncovered in Great Britain against the airliners, shoes were a possible connection in all of that," Mumma said. "The main thrust is liquid and gels, but as an additional matter they decided that shoes were still a threat, so they extended the restrictions to shoes just as a prudent measure."

Mumma said he has no idea whether or not shoe removal is going to be a permanent requirement in passenger screening.

Shoes with metal shanks rank high on the list of items that typically set off the alarm on a metal detector, Mumma said, but the list also includes belt buckles that are larger than a man's dress belt buckle, larger size underwire bras, heavy jewelry and metal accessories. Mumma said a large man's watch often will set off the detector, but most of the time a small woman's watch will not.

Depending on the moment in time that the person goes through the walk-through metal detector, and depending on what airport it is and how it's set up, there are heating elements running underneath the floor or running overhead that sometimes cause electronic interference, which makes the detector more or less sensitive to a minute degree, Mumma explained.

"So you could wear the same watch through one airport and it will set off the alarm, and at the next airport it won't," he pointed out. "That's not a flaw in the system; it's a matter of other outside influences and that sort of thing. Quite frankly, we urge people to take their watches off, regardless."

When a metal detector does go off, the traveler is allowed a second walk through, Mumma noted. If the alarm is triggered a second time, the traveler is subjected to a hand-wand and pat-down inspection, as well as a search of anything he's carrying.    

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