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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Facing the Facts: Baggage Not Being X-Rayed on Flights in United States : Security: With no system to match passengers and their bags, such as the one used on international flights, terrorists could check in explosive devices.

May 26, 1991|PETER S. GREENBERG

Though not many people realized it, during the recent war in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Postal Service quietly decided to stop using U.S. airlines to ship most packages and parcels on flights within the United States.

Why? Airport and airline security was at an all-time high, right?

Technically, yes.

Shortly after the war in the Persian Gulf began in mid-January, new security measures were imposed at airports throughout the United States.

It was called "Level Four" security. Under the heightened security measures, U.S. airports eliminated curbside check-in, banned unattended vehicles within 100 feet of terminal buildings, and allowed only ticketed passengers onto concourses and in gate areas.

But during this time, was it really safer to fly?

If so, then why, in late January, did the Postal Service decide that any parcel weighing more than 12 ounces was to be rerouted to cargo aircraft or surface vehicles for delivery?

"We didn't want to run the risk of being targeted by terrorists using the mails. Mail as well as checked baggage wasn't being X-rayed," confirms Larry Dozier, a Postal Service spokesman at the Van Nuys division office. The rerouting decision was made by the U.S. Postmaster General in conjunction with the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation.

In practice, however, airline and airport security was just as vulnerable to terrorists, especially when it came to checked baggage. And it still is.

Before, during and, now, after the Gulf War, no U.S. airline was or is X-raying checked baggage on flights within the United States. And, with the possible exception of passengers making international connections, no U.S. airline matches passengers with their bags.

On international flights, bags are matched with passengers when they check in for a flight. The number of checked bags is written on the passenger's ticket. When the passenger boards the plane, the ticket is pulled at the gate. Then, the numbers written on the tickets are totaled and matched with the number of bags actually loaded onto the plane. If the numbers match, the plane is cleared for departure.

What the lack of bag matching means on domestic flights is that virtually any kind of weapon and/or explosive device could easily be checked on board any U.S. airline, and since no bag/passenger matching system is in effect, a "passenger" can easily check in for a flight, check in his or her bags and never board the plane.

If the Postal Service was so worried about this major hole in airline security that it wouldn't use U.S. airlines to ship parcels, then what about the passengers?

Most passengers still believe--incorrectly--that their checked bags are being X-rayed by airlines on domestic flights. Fact is, they were not X-rayed during the Persian Gulf War. And they are not being X-rayed now.

"It is true," concedes Homer Boynton, managing director of security for American Airlines, "that we do not X-ray checked baggage on domestic flights. As far as we're concerned, the only threat we deal with in the U.S. is hijacking.

"Until such time as the government says we have a different threat, we prepare ourselves for hijacking."

Despite the facts, many airlines are continuing to give false information about their security procedures to prospective passengers. I called the reservations lines of a dozen airlines. In each case I told the agents--who deal with all public calls for reservations--that my mother was worried about flying because of potential terrorism. I then asked each agent if the airline X-rayed all checked bags. Here's what some of them told me:

Alaska Airlines: "We do follow tight security procedures. We check all bags personally before they are checked onto the plane."

TWA: "Our security is good. We screen all bags and also spot-check handbags and bags being checked."

America West: "Airport security X-rays everyone that gets onto a plane as well as their bags. The bags that are checked are also X-rayed before being put on the planes."

Delta: "They (security personnel) spot-check both carry-on and checked bags."

United: "All bags go through a scanner (X-ray machine) before they go on the plane, and if there's something suspicious, the bag is opened and checked."

Not one airline reservations agent told the true story--that on domestic flights, no checked baggage is X-rayed.

"If these airlines are telling you that they are X-raying checked baggage, they are lying," says Chris Witkowski, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, an air-safety lobbying group based in Washington.

"ACAP has been arguing, to little avail, for X-raying of checked passenger bags for more than a year. But the airlines just don't want to spend the money. In the meantime," he charges, "the public thinks that their checked bags are being screened."

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