Almost two months after promising to address what aviation experts called a major vulnerability in new airline security regulations, the Transportation Department does not require airlines to match passengers with their checked luggage on connecting flights and has no specific timetable to even test such a system, government and aviation officials told MSNBC.com.
The policy, known generally as “positive passenger bag matching,” was one of several new measures that emerged in January as Congress demanded action to tighten security procedures that lawmakers blamed for not stopping the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In the procedure, which is widespread in Europe and other international regions, checked luggage is supposed to be cross-matched with passenger manifests to ensure that no baggage is placed in an aircraft’s cargo hold unless its owner is on board.
The procedure is intended to discourage would-be terrorists from checking a bomb onto a plane and leaving the airport without boarding the flight.
Connecting flights not included
Government aviation officials acknowledged in January that the policy required only that baggage be cross-matched on the originating legs of flights. Members of Congress complained that a bomber could defeat the system by checking explosives onto a multistop flight and leaving them behind at a connecting stop, which is what happened in 1988 when a Pan Am flight was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland.
John Magaw, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, which inherited airline security from the Federal Aviation Administration under legislation President Bush signed late last year, said in January that the agency would undertake a test program to determine the difficulties of bag-matching on connecting flights.
Agency officials announced the so-called “pilot program” Feb. 6. But security experts inside and outside the aviation industry interviewed by MSNBC.com in the past week said the test program had not yet gotten under way, almost two months after Magaw’s statement. While Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told MSNBC.com last week that the program had begun as far as he knew, spokesmen for the TSA confirmed Monday that it had not.
“They don’t do it for connecting flights,” said Michael Boyd, a former airline executive who now analyzes the industry. “They lied to us by saying ... all bags are checked for explosives.”
Security experts called the lack of screening on connecting flights a serious vulnerability, citing studies that showed that 75 million travelers a year connected to a second or a third flight. They said they were concerned that publicity about the loophole had given would-be terrorists easy-to-follow instructions for how to plant a bomb on an airplane without getting caught.
Asked when the program might begin, Rebecca Trexler, a TSA spokeswoman, said, “We will be conducting a test of a system to provide 100 percent positive passenger bag match in the near future.”
Pressed for a more specific timetable, Paul Turk, another TSA spokesman, said no projected start date had been set.
Specter of Lockerbie
An aide to Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., a member of the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation, said Petri “wants to see that done as soon as possible.”
The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told MSNBC.com that from the beginning, Petri had been “concerned, obviously, that connecting flights were not included” when the loophole was identified in January.
The aide said that while “bag matching is certainly not foolproof,” it was one of the best measures available.
However, the aviation industry’s chief congressional overseer, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., defended the TSA, saying, “It’s very difficult to institute a bag-match program [in] such a limited time.”
Mica, chairman of the aviation panel, said in an interview that short connection times exacerbated by the U.S. aviation industry’s system of hub and feeder airports — many of which follow somewhat different security protocols — created formidable logistical problems that were “much more complicated than people would lead you to believe.”
Mica said it was imperative to make sure that initial electronic screening of all checked luggage, which Congress has mandated by Dec. 31, was so thorough that the question of connecting flights became moot.
The Transportation Department, however, acknowledged earlier this month that it would not meet the Dec. 31 deadline to install automated systems to screen all checked baggage; security analysts generally agree that such a universal system probably would not be in place before 2004.
Until then, they said, the bag-matching program would remain seriously vulnerable if bags and passengers were not tracked through their connections.
Others suggested that matching bags on connecting flights was not as difficult as government officials made it out to be. Frontier Airlines said it was already doing so, although it would not reveal details of how.
One proposed system would use microwave radio signals sent from special chips attached to luggage tags that could detect a device carried by the passengers to confirm that a bag had an owner to go with it.
The most likely system would simply match bags the same way the airlines already do on originating flights. Security analysts pointed out that nearly all connections also serve as originating flights for some or most of their passengers; checking bags for connecting passengers could be done simultaneously because originating and connecting passengers board at the same time.
The airlines defeated previous bag-matching proposals by arguing that they would create widespread delays as unmatched bags were pulled from cargo holds. But Arnold Barnett, an MIT management science professor who was chairman of an FAA technical team that studied bag-matching in 1999, said his team’s tests indicated that delays would be minimal, with only 1 of every 2,000 checked bags having to be removed.
“It may be that we’re not advancing as energetically on those fronts as we otherwise might,” Barnett said last week in an interview, adding that delays attributable to bag matching appeared to be “statistically invisible.” Even when the program is expanded to include connecting flights, he said, “when the originating and the inbound flights are on time, I really believe that’s just not a sweat.”
“Maybe TSA will give America an Easter present by announcing that we have connecting bag-match,” he said.