Airline passengers should be prepared for delays starting today as the federal deadline arrives requiring all checked baggage to be inspected for explosives.
Airlines say they will meet the deadline and pledge to inconvenience passengers as little as possible as they search their baggage by hand, run it through bomb-detection machines, have trained dogs sniff it for explosive chemicals or check passenger lists to make certain each piece of baggage loaded on an airplane can be matched to someone on the same plane.
If any passengers miss a flight after their baggage is checked, their airplane and all other passengers will be delayed while their baggage is removed.
“This is going to cause a backup at many airports,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican. However, she said, “The major vulnerability we have today is checked baggage.”
A spot check by The Washington Times this week found only about 20 percent to 25 percent of carry-on baggage was being hand-searched or placed through bomb-detection machines at the region’s three major airports as the deadline approached.
Although an undisclosed number of checked bags also will be hand-searched, airlines plan to rely primarily on bag-matching to comply with the 100-percent inspection rule.
The Federal Aviation Administration plans to have special agents at airports today to ensure airlines comply with the rule.
Some members of Congress critical of bag matching say the procedure would not stop a suicide bomber hiding a bomb in carry-on luggage or, in the case of accused bomber Richard C. Reid, in his shoes.
Bag matching refers to methods for ensuring each bag placed on an airplane is linked to a passenger boarding the same plane. It is intended to prevent attacks like the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which terrorists placed explosives in checked baggage with a timed detonator attached. The terrorists did not board the plane.
Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, raised other concerns about the system.
“If the passenger connects to another flight, their bags can be placed on the connecting flight without any check of whether the passenger has boarded the flight,” he said. “Bags on connecting flights that are not flagged will not be inspected, creating an Achilles’ heel in the security system.”
Much of the searching, sniffing and scanning will occur behind ticket counters, out of view of passengers.
“They won’t see anything different, but they need to make changes in the way they use the airports,” said Baltimore-Washington International Airport spokeswoman Melanie Miller. “You need to be at the airport half an hour earlier. That means no more last-minute hamburgers.”
Before September 11, only 2 percent to 10 percent of checked baggage was searched before being loaded onto airplanes. The 100 percent rule in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act will apply to baggage that in 2000 amounted to 1.4 billion pieces, or 3.8 million each day on average.
Some passengers concerned about delays are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“I don’t know what it’s going to cause but clearly it has to be done,” said David Ganz, a Santa Bel, Fla., resident arriving at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport this week on a business trip. “I’ll probably have to get to the airport earlier. We’ll hear how it goes then make our adjustments afterward.”
The Washington Times found that searching each carry-on bag by hand or with a bomb-detection device would be impossible without enormous delays or a fourfold to fivefold increase in security personnel.
In one moderately busy 10-minute period at Reagan Airport this week, three screeners doing hand searches at one gate searched no more than 15 bags. During the period, 79 passengers passed through the gate, some carrying coats, purses and briefcases in addition to baggage.
Similar search rates were found at Washington Dulles International Airport and BWI.
The bomb-detection machines were used only sporadically. Security personnel say they are most likely to use the bomb detectors when baggage or passengers fit a profile, which they refuse to disclose for “national security” reasons.
Typically, during periods with a steady stream of passengers, screeners hand-searched bags at an average rate of one every two minutes. Searches with the bomb detectors took about the same amount of time but were conducted less often. The hand and bomb searches slowed as the number of passengers slowed.
BWI passengers were most likely to be pulled aside and asked to remove their shoes for closer inspection and to have their baggage run through a bomb-detection machine. Of 150 passengers observed at each airport, 15 at BWI, 10 at Reagan Airport and four at Dulles were ordered to remove their shoes.
Most hand or bomb searches were done only after a screener watching an X-ray machine pointed out to co-workers suspicious objects in baggage.
Passengers generally were tolerant of the security procedures but had occasional complaints.
“It is intrusive. It is an inconvenience. But if it has to be done, it has to be done,” said Victoria Barrera, a businesswoman from Hartford, Conn., in Washington for a meeting.
She said she called ahead to Reagan Airport and was told lockers would be available to hold her bags while she waited for a flight. When she arrived, she found the lockers were closed. A shoe-shine attendant was the only person nearby who knew they were closed for security reasons.
She worried about further confusion as baggage is more closely inspected.
“Whatever they do, they have to inform their staff and they have to inform the public,” Miss Barrera said.
The FAA will allow airlines to use any of four primary methods to comply with the 100-percent screening rule.
One is bag matching, whose effectiveness is questioned even by the FAA. The FAA considered a bag-matching rule after the 1988 Lockerbie explosion, but gave in to opposition from airlines that complained about the cost and delays. Cost estimates are speculative within the airline industry.
Another is the bomb-detection machines. The $1 million, compact-car-size machines are sensitive to a variety of explosive chemicals.
However, about 2,000 of them are needed and only about 160 have been delivered to airports. Two manufacturers make them, and they cannot meet the current demand.
BWI has five of them but needs about 25 to search all baggage; Reagan Airport has eight and Dulles has three. Each of the machines weighs about 7,000 pounds, requiring BWI to reinforce floors to support them.
More are needed at Reagan Airport and Dulles, but airport officials said they didn’t know how many.
“That will be determined by the new Transportation Security Administration,” said Tara Hamilton, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman.
Another acceptable method is bomb-sniffing dogs. The dogs are effective but can’t work long periods. Only about 175 of them are adequately trained for the job nationwide.
Hand searches also will be used. However, hand searches create long lines and are only as effective as the person doing the search.
Airlines are using profiles of suspicious passengers and baggage to target their searches and cut down on delays.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta gave airlines a small reprieve Wednesday when he announced they could use a combination of screening techniques to meet the deadline.
Passengers seemed tolerant of the security procedures.
“I don’t mind at all as long as it’s safe,” said Omar Caballero, a 21-year-old Napa Valley College student from California who was met by his girlfriend at Dulles.
“Increased security is a good thing,” said George Salem, a Washington lawyer who was about to pass through a checkpoint for a business trip to Paris. “I just hope they do it expeditiously. Whatever it takes to get the public flying again.”