- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Now that the Department of Transportation has vowed to meet the aviation security bill's deadline for baggage screening, the air transport industry faces the challenging task of deciding how best to meet the tough new requirements. September 11 painfully demonstrated the need for enhanced security at our nation's airports to ensure the safety of passengers. Transportation officials acknowledge that the resources for machine, manual and canine searches are not fully available at the moment. This means that the airline industry must tap into other proven technologies as quickly as possible to implement needed security and restore America's confidence in air travel.

Baggage screening is one of the legislation's major requirements. Within 60 days, every checked bag on every flight must either be screened for explosives by machines, specially trained dogs, or manual searches or else each piece must be matched to a passenger on the plane. It could well be years before the first two options become available; there simply are not enough machines and trained dogs to do the job. And manual searches are not a viable option because of the lack of physical space at check-in counters, the enormous amount of time such screening would take, and because of a shortage of qualified screeners. The best option, as federal officials have noted, is existing technology that matches baggage with passengers.

Since the 1988 Pan Am crash over Lockerbie, Scotland, all international flights departing from the United States have been required to match baggage with passengers. It's done using a sophisticated tagging system that codes each bag and tracks its journey through screening, sorting and loading onto the plane. If at some point the bag is misdirected or flagged as a potential threat, security managers are immediately alerted and appropriate action taken. With the threat of terrorism on our home soil, this system needs to be expanded to cover domestic flights.

Since baggage-matching technology is already in use, widening its application can easily be accomplished in months, if not weeks. And it would not cost any more than the newspaper so many passengers pick up just before boarding a flight.

Inconvenience to passengers would be minimal to none. The scanning technology knows exactly where bags are loaded on the aircraft, so if a bag must be removed because its owner does not make the flight, that retrieval can be done in a matter of minutes. This technology actually diminishes delays and improves aircraft operations, because without it, handlers would need to off-load each bag and inspect the tags visually to find any orphan luggage, which can take almost an hour.

Besides improved security and the confidence it instills in passengers, a baggage-match system would have the added benefit of virtually eliminating lost luggage. This alone would save the airlines tens of millions of dollars a year. It would also improve service for passengers, who would no longer experience anxiety attacks throughout the flight, wondering if their bag will arrive with them and pondering the dreaded image of attending their next business meeting in a hotel bathrobe. Obviously this concern pales in light of security threats, but at least the savings could help offset the cost of the system.

For obvious reasons, security is on the mind of every American. The president and Congress have done their part by agreeing on legislation that seeks to dramatically change the way security enforcement is handled in this country. With air travel so visibly at risk, not just from terrorists but also from the wariness of customers, who understandably fear stepping onto an airplane, lawmakers had a special responsibility to do everything possible to keep America flying, and they have met that challenge.

Now it is up to the airlines and the airports to do their part by meeting the strict baggage requirements of the legislation. They should quickly agree to make automated baggage-match technology mandatory for all flights in the United States. Let's not wait for the next Lockerbie.

Catherine Mayer is a vice president of SITA, a company that produces baggage-matching technology.

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