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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Auditor Notes Loophole in Baggage Screenings

January 24, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A loophole in the baggage screening measures that took effect last week is creating a higher risk for passengers departing on connecting flights, the Transportation Department inspector general told Congress on Tuesday.

"There is a gap in this process, and . . . it needs to be closed," Inspector General Kenneth Mead told a House panel holding the first oversight hearings on the new security measures. The loophole allows a bag to be loaded on a connecting flight without ensuring that the passenger has also boarded, he said.

Mead, a frequent critic of the department, testified that, in general, he is impressed by the "diligence and aggressiveness" the new Transportation Security Administration has shown in improving airport security. But he warned that the agency faces a major challenge in meeting a Dec. 31 deadline for screening all bags with explosives-detection machines and is also confronting a budget shortfall that could exceed $4 billion this year.

Security in the passenger cabin has notably improved since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, government and industry officials agree. Airlines have fortified cockpit doors and instituted new training for pilots and flight attendants. Air marshals are on many more flights. And many passengers appear ready and willing to physically tackle potential troublemakers. But U.S. airliners are still considered vulnerable to a bomb in checked baggage.

The requirement that went into effect last week was aimed at reducing that vulnerability. Airlines were required to screen every bag with at least one of several techniques, including hand searches, trained dogs, explosives-detection machines or matching the bag to a passenger who actually boards the plane. The requirement is in effect until Dec. 31, when all baggage must be screened with the detection machines that are considered more effective but are in limited supply.

Airlines opted to meet the new baggage requirements primarily by using bag matching, Mead said. A standard procedure employed around the world to deter would-be bombers, it had previously not been applied to domestic flights in the United States because of airline concerns about possible delays. In a concession to the industry, security officials only required the airlines to match passengers and bags on originating flights.

But Mead said that compromise defies logic. "By definition, if the passenger is not on the same aircraft as his or her checked baggage, then it is not a positive passenger bag match," Mead testified.

Statistics indicate that about 15% of passengers--75 million air travelers a year--make a connection to another flight. That proportion is much higher at major hub airports, such as Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

"These connecting passengers would not have their checked baggage subject to any screening when departing the hub airport," Mead said. "This creates a higher risk for flights departing hub airports, which are the largest airports in the country."

Newly appointed transportation security chief John Magaw said the agency will pursue the issue with the airlines.

"This is the Achilles' heel of aviation security," warned Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.).

While bag matching would not prevent a suicide bombing, its advocates say that, along with other measures, it can serve as a deterrent.

Mead also warned that the new security agency faces its toughest challenge in meeting a Dec. 31 deadline for explosives detection machines. Even if enough machines can be manufactured, there may not be enough space at many airports to install the units, which are the size of a pickup truck.

"Integrating explosives detection equipment into the airport environment will be much more difficult and expensive than many people realize," said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee. "If the aviation industry and the flying public were concerned about the chaos created when a new baggage system was installed in Denver [in 1995], imagine the challenge of retrofitting 400 major U.S. airport baggage systems in the next 11 months."

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