- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

Airlines have made dramatic improvements in security since the September 11 terrorist attacks, but equally dramatic lapses remain, members of Congress said yesterday.
The combination of baggage-screening techniques required since Friday is a significant improvement, but suicide bombers or bombs in bags that get transferred between flights still could bring down an airliner, witnesses told the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.
The combination includes hand searches, explosives-detection machines, bomb-sniffing dogs and bag matching, which means that each bag loaded onto an airplane must be matched to a passenger on the same plane before the flight can begin. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act requires that all bags checked onto airplanes be subjected to at least one of the screening techniques.
"I think that combination is sufficient as we go forward," said John Magaw, head of the new Transportation Security Administration.
But Rep. Leonard L. Boswell, Iowa Democrat, responded, "I can't agree with that. We need to know what's going into that hold."
Mr. Boswell referred to the fact that airlines are primarily using the bag-matching technique to comply with the rules. Airport screeners open and search only some of the bags loaded onto airplanes. At the same time, only a few bags are run through explosive-detection machines or are searched by bomb-sniffing dogs.
Mr. Magaw conceded that bag matching might not stop a suicide bomber.
However, he said that until technologies improve and an estimated 6,000 bomb-detection machines are installed at airports nationwide, the best option is to use a combination of screening techniques. He estimated the total cost of purchasing the explosives-detection machines to be between $2.5 billion and $4 billion. Currently, only 162 of the machines are used at airports nationwide.
"This is the Achilles heel of aviation security," said Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat.
Similar conclusions were found in a Transportation Department inspector general's report presented to the subcommittee yesterday.
"Based on our observations on January 18 at airports nationwide, we are pleased with the progress so far," the report said. However, it said bag matching has limited effectiveness.
"The current procedure does not cover passengers and their baggage on connecting flights," it said. "In addition, positive passenger bag match will not prevent a suicidal terrorist from blowing up an aircraft by putting a bomb in his baggage, which is why Congress has required all checked baggage to be screened through an explosives-detection system by December 31, 2002."
The report implied the Dec. 31 deadline is unrealistic."Currently, there is a gap between what the manufacturers can produce and what is needed to meet the December deadline," the report said.
Some members of the aviation subcommittee expressed concern about the economy if security becomes an obstacle to air travel.
"Making travel more inconvenient does not necessarily make it safer," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, Nevada Democrat.
The tourist industry in her home district, which includes Las Vegas, was crippled by the September 11 attacks.
"Our economy is very dependent on these people who come to Las Vegas," she said.

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