Latest Air Safety Thrust: Baggage ; Federal Plan to Screen All Checked-In Luggage Will Increase Security - and Lines

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America's skies are about to get just a little more secure - and the lines at the airport could also get a little bit longer.

Friday is the deadline for the nation's airlines to screen 100 percent of checked bags before they go into planes' cargo holds. Most carriers say they will be in "100 percent" compliance by then.

But because of the way Congress wrote the Aviation Security Bill in the wake of Sept. 11, the word "screening" is a bit misleading. Indeed, most bags will not be hand searched, sniffed by trained dogs, or put through an explosive-detection machine, although undoubtedly more bags will get that kind of special attention.

What the airlines and the FAA are depending on to meet Friday's deadline is what's called a "positive bag match" - something the carriers have fought successfully at home for the past 13 years as too expensive and cumbersome. Essentially, a luggage match ensures that no bag is on a plane unless its owner is firmly belted into a seat with the tray table up and in the locked position.

It's a procedure that's been mandatory on international flights since before Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. And while it would have done nothing to impede the suicide hijackers on Sept. 11, most aviation experts agree that while seriously flawed, it is still a step in the right direction.

"It is a move toward security, yes. Is it all encompassing or self-sufficient? No." says George Hamlin, a consultant with Global Aviation in Washington.

Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta is expected to outline the new security measures today at a speech in Washington. For many in the industry, the changes are welcome, but also too little too late.

In a compromise worked out with the airlines, they'll reportedly be required only to match bags on the first leg of a flight. Bags from connecting flights will simply be loaded, whether the passenger gets on or not.

"The positive bag match is so defective anyway in terms of protecting passengers from explosives, and this will dumb it down. It will allow passengers to be separated," says David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association. "It's window dressing with little real improvement."

Decades in the making

The Federal Aviation Administration began to look into developing and implementing explosives-detecting equipment back in the 1970s, after a rash of hijackings and bombings.

An FAA team set to work trying to develop explosive-detecting systems but made little progress, in part because the technology available was limited. The threat also appeared to dissipate, particularly in the US.

Then, after an Air India flight exploded over the Atlantic in 1985, Europeans began installing primitive explosive-detection systems. …