Airlines expected to meet deadline for inspecting bags

Thursday, January 17, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The airlines and the government will meet Friday's deadline for stepped-up screening of baggage for explosives, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Wednesday.

Bags will be checked by hand, explosive-detection machines or bomb-sniffing dogs, or matched to boarding passengers, Mineta told the Transportation Research Board, an industry group.

"The department has taken the necessary action to meet the requirement, using the full menu of options provided for in the law," he said. Some congressional Democrats criticized the plans as inadequate.

As an alternative to actual inspections, airlines can use a passenger-bag match -- a strategy where no bag will be loaded on an originating flight unless the passenger also boards.

However, if a passenger connects to a different plane, the airline does not have make sure he or she boards the second time before loading the luggage.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt assailed Mineta's statement, saying the Bush administration was too narrowly interpreting the requirements of the law Congress passed to strengthen security.

"The law requires that every bag on every flight be screened, but the Bush administration said today that it will match bags with passengers," the Missouri Democrat said in a statement. "While that is an important part of airline security, it will not take care of the issue of screening bags for bombs."

"Furthermore, officials will not be matching bags on connecting flights, which means that not all of the bags will be matched to passengers, creating another security loophole," Gephardt said.

That amounts to "an Achilles' heel in the security system," said Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.

But it does enable airlines to avoid serious delays, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group.

The law gave the government several options for protecting passengers besides actual screening of all bags until the system can be put fully in place, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the Transportation Committee's aviation panel, was glad about Mineta's announcement.

"The measures are exactly what we called for in the law," Mica said. "There may be some slight delays as far as passenger boarding, but the traveling public is willing to sacrifice a little bit of time for additional safety."

In addition to having their checked baggage screened, more passengers will be singled out for additional scrutiny by a computerized profiling system, and more travelers and their carryon luggage will be screened for explosives with hand-held equipment at security checkpoints, Mineta said.

Paul Hudson, director of the Ralph Nader-affiliated Aviation Consumer Action Project, took a dim view of the plan.

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