TSA agent Laneisha Howard loads luggage onto a belt to be X-rayed in Terminal… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)
For all the security improvements at airports after 9/11 — full-body scans, bans on liquids, pat downs — there is one check that airports aren't doing.
Bags checked at airline counters are scanned for possible explosives but not for loaded guns.
The potential loophole became apparent over the weekend at Los Angeles International Airport, when an undeclared, loaded .38-caliber handgun went undetected from the airport and almost onto an Alaska Airlines flight to Portland. It was discovered by ramp workers, who said the gun fell out of a duffel bag as they were about to load it on the plane.
At first, the incident appeared to a be a breakdown of LAX's extensive weapons detection system.
But Transportation Security Administration officials said they are not required to screen for loaded weapons in checked luggage, only in carry-on luggage. TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said the duffel bag in question went through an explosives scanner, as do all checked bags. It did not generate an alert.
"It may be an issue for some agency or the airline, but it's not a TSA issue. Our mandate is to screen baggage for explosives," he said.
Another TSA official, Kristin Lee, said weapons stored in checked luggage don't pose the same threat as weapons in carry-on luggage because they are not within reach of passengers in flight.
"Checked bags are stored in the cargo hold of a plane, where passengers can't access them," Lee said in an email message. "When Congress created TSA, it mandated that the agency screen checked bags for explosives that could take down a plane, not for items that do not pose a security threat to the flight."
No other organization claimed responsibility for catching loaded guns in checked bags.
It's illegal to pack a loaded gun in checked luggage and illegal to pack even an unloaded gun without declaring its presence. Violations of the regulations can carry a federal civil fine of up to $11,000 as well as possible criminal penalties.
Airlines ask customers to declare guns when they check in but do not screen the baggage for weapons.
Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. of America, a trade group for airlines, said that since creation of the TSA after the attacks of 9/11, airlines ceded baggage-screening authority to the agency.
FOR THE RECORD:
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Lott was a spokesman for the International Air Transport Assn.
Policies implemented to make screening more efficient may have meant that some non-explosive prohibited items, including guns, are more likely to get through.
When TSA instituted an explosives detection system to scan all checked bags, machine operators had to look at a screen image of the contents of each bag, said Quinten Johnson, a Florida-based aviation security consultant and former TSA federal security director at four airports in the Southeast. When they did so, they would frequently catch guns and other unauthorized items.
But in the interest of improving efficiency, the agency switched to a system in which the machine alerts the operator to bags containing potential explosives and operators are not required to look at the screen image for each bag.
"When it comes down to improving efficiency over looking for guns in checked bags, efficiency won over," he said.
Although Johnson and other experts said loaded weapons in the cargo hulls of planes pose little threat because passengers don't have access to them while in flight, others say they do present concerns.
"If the gun goes off — and it was a loaded gun — you have potential for damage to the hydraulic, the electrical and the fuel system of the plane," said Glen Winn, another aviation security consultant and a former director of security at United Airlines.
There have also been some incidents in which people have been injured by guns in checked bags that discharged accidentally.
In 2000, a loaded gun went off in an Alaska Airlines flight bound from Portland to Anchorage. The bullet passed through the floor of the cabin and lodged in a diaper bag. Most recently, a United Airlines employee in Louisiana was shot in the leg in July by a rifle that was accidentally fired at the check-in counter while a customer was trying to declare it.
It was unclear whether the owner of the gun found at LAX, who was questioned and released, would face sanctions.
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.