Checked-baggage inspections don't go far enough, some say

Two leading House Democrats say the Transportation Department's plan for tougher airline baggage inspections, scheduled to begin today, falls short of what a post-Sept. 11 law requires.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, objected to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta's announcement Wednesday that airlines would meet the congressionally ordered deadline in many cases by refusing to load luggage unless the passenger also boards.

"This decision amounts to a narrow interpretation of the statute and flouts the intent of a law designed to fundamentally change the air safety rules of our country," Gephardt said. "I'm afraid the secretary's announcement is little more than a perpetuation of the status quo."

The two lawmakers said the law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in November requires bags to be screened for explosives. But only some luggage will be checked with explosive detection machines, bomb-sniffing dogs, hand searches by security agents, or handheld equipment that detects traces of explosives.

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

No changes here

This is the approach that will continue to take place at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. Airport manager Bruce Loy said local passengers won't see much difference in service in Cape Girardeau.

"There's been a lot of national hoopla about every bag being checked, but that's just not happening," Loy said. "There's just not enough machines out there to do this."

Though the security is tighter nationwide than it was on Sept. 11, not everyone is satisfied with the passenger-bag match system.

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

That amounts to "an Achilles' heel in the security system," Oberstar said. He said the inspection system "will add significantly to the security of checked baggage. However, it is disappointing that the program falls short of what the new law requires."

Screening ultimate goal

Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson said the law allows different methods to inspect luggage as officials work toward the Dec. 31 deadline to have all checked bags screened by explosives detection machines.

"That's the endgame that we've got our minds on," Jackson said. "We'll get stronger every week and we'll deploy more tools."

Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association, said security would continue to improve in response to the terrorist attacks.

"It's going to continue to be a safer and safer program as we go forward," said Hallett, whose trade group represents the major airlines. "There are more things being done now. ... It's all for the safety and security and protection of the passengers and crews."

Others praised Mineta's announcement.

"The measures are exactly what we called for in the law," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. "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."

Southeast Missourian staff writer Bob Miller contributed to this report.