Latest air safety thrust: baggage

Federal plan to screen all checked-in luggage will increase security - and lines.

America's skies are about to get just a little more secure - and the lines at the airport could also get a little bit longer.

Friday is the deadline for the nation's airlines to screen 100 percent of checked bags before they go into planes' cargo holds. Most carriers say they will be in "100 percent" compliance by then.

But because of the way Congress wrote the Aviation Security Bill in the wake of Sept. 11, the word "screening" is a bit misleading. Indeed, most bags will not be hand searched, sniffed by trained dogs, or put through an explosive-detection machine, although undoubtedly more bags will get that kind of special attention.

What the airlines and the FAA are depending on to meet Friday's deadline is what's called a "positive bag match" - something the carriers have fought successfully at home for the past 13 years as too expensive and cumbersome. Essentially, a luggage match ensures that no bag is on a plane unless its owner is firmly belted into a seat with the tray table up and in the locked position.

It's a procedure that's been mandatory on international flights since before Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. And while it would have done nothing to impede the suicide hijackers on Sept. 11, most aviation experts agree that while seriously flawed, it is still a step in the right direction.

"It is a move toward security, yes. Is it all encompassing or self-sufficient? No." says George Hamlin, a consultant with Global Aviation in Washington.

Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta is expected to outline the new security measures today at a speech in Washington. For many in the industry, the changes are welcome, but also too little too late.

In a compromise worked out with the airlines, they'll reportedly be required only to match bags on the first leg of a flight. Bags from connecting flights will simply be loaded, whether the passenger gets on or not.

"The positive bag match is so defective anyway in terms of protecting passengers from explosives, and this will dumb it down. It will allow passengers to be separated," says David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association. "It's window dressing with little real improvement."

Decades in the making

The Federal Aviation Administration began to look into developing and implementing explosives-detecting equipment back in the 1970s, after a rash of hijackings and bombings.

An FAA team set to work trying to develop explosive-detecting systems but made little progress, in part because the technology available was limited. The threat also appeared to dissipate, particularly in the US.

Then, after an Air India flight exploded over the Atlantic in 1985, Europeans began installing primitive explosive-detection systems. To further mitigate the threat, positive bag matches and selective hand searches were required on all international flights, including those from the US. The assumption then was that most bombers preferred not to die with their victims.

But the procedure caused delays and one American airline, Pan Am, simply ignored it.

They paid a high price for that. In 1988, a bomb planted in a radio - its owner nowhere near the plane - exploded on Pan Am Flight 103, killing 270 people.

A commission was set up and mandatory bag-matching was again required on all international flights. But the airlines argued, successfully, that the domestic threat was minimal and the cost, in terms of delays, too high to implement at home.

The process was repeated again in 1996, when TWA Flight 800 blew up shortly after take takeoff from JFK Airport in New York. The initial fear was that a bomb had been planted in the hold, but an investigation found mechanical error was at fault.

The FAA again demanded airlines begin bag-matching, as well screening for explosives. But the airlines successfully resisted the bag match, and it wasn't until 1994 that the FAA approved the first Explosive Detection System.

"If they'd done what they should have done way back in the 1970s, we'd be way ahead of the game," says Aaron Gellman of Northwestern University's Transportation Center in Evanston, Ill.

Instead, a frantic effort to catch up is now under way. The Sept. 11 attacks showed Americans that they're living in a different world - one where bombers may find it an honor to die with their victims. In the face of that threat, the bag match is useless, so the top security focus is now bomb detection.

Few detection machines

Currently, 161 explosive-detection machines are installed at 40 airports around the country, according to the FAA. But to meet the goal of screening all bags for explosives, more than 2,000 machines would be needed in the nation's more than 400 large airports, experts estimate. That's a goal that is supposed to be met by the end of 2002.

But the machines themselves remain problematic. They are heavy, slow, and have a "false positive" rate that experts say is higher than 20 percent. Those "false positive" bags, therefore, must be set aside and searched by hand, which adds to delays.

But that doesn't bother the people who actually work on the planes.

"The bag-matching is a start, but it's inadequate as a final solution," says Jeff Zack of the Association of Flight Attendants. "There needs to be examination of every bag that goes in the hold - that's the only way to do it."

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