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
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
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