Congressional Democrats say plan to inspect baggage doesn't go far enough
By Jonathan D. Salant, Associated Press, 01/17/02
WASHINGTON -- Two leading House Democrats say the Transportation Department's plan for tougher airline baggage inspections, scheduled to begin Friday, falls short of what a post-Sept. 11 law requires.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, objected to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta's announcement Wednesday that airlines would meet the congressionally ordered deadline in many cases by refusing to load luggage unless the passenger also boards.
"This decision amounts to a narrow interpretation of the statute and flouts the intent of a law designed to fundamentally change the air safety rules of our country," Gephardt said. "I'm afraid the secretary's announcement is little more than a perpetuation of the status quo."
The two lawmakers said the law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in November requires bags to be screened for explosives. But only some luggage will be checked with explosive detection machines, bomb-sniffing dogs, hand searches by security agents, or handheld equipment that detects traces of explosives.
As an alternative to actual inspections, airlines can use a passenger-bag match -- a strategy in which no bag will be loaded on an originating flight unless the passenger also boards.
If a passenger connects to a different plane, however, the airline does not have make sure he or she boards the second time before loading the luggage.
That amounts to "an Achilles' heel in the security system," Oberstar said. He said the inspection system "will add significantly to the security of checked baggage. However, it is disappointing that the program falls short of what the new law requires."
Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson said the law allows different methods to inspect luggage as officials work toward the Dec. 31 deadline to have all checked bags screened by explosive detection machines.
"That's the endgame that we've got our minds on," Jackson said. "We'll get stronger every week and we'll deploy more tools."
Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association, said aviation security would continue to improve in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It's going to continue to be a safer and safer program as we go forward," said Hallett, whose trade group represents the major airlines. "There are more things being done now. ... It's all for the safety and security and protection of the passengers and crews."
Others praised Mineta's announcement.
"The measures are exactly what we called for in the law," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. "There may be some slight delays as far as passenger boarding, but the traveling public is willing to sacrifice a little bit of time for additional safety."
Gephardt, though, said the passenger-bag match does not keep bombs off a plane.
"Under the administration's plan, only under rare circumstances will officials actually determine what is inside checked baggage as the law requires," Gephardt said. "The intent of Congress was to do much more to ensure that passengers are safe."
Jackson said the passenger-bag match has been used for many years to improve security on international flights. "This is an important tool that must be deployed," he said.
In addition to having their checked baggage screened, more passengers will be singled out for additional scrutiny by a computerized profiling system, and more travelers and their carryon luggage will be screened for explosives with handheld equipment at security checkpoints, Mineta said.
Mineta also said the government would meet two other deadlines Friday: developing a new training program for security screeners, including 40 hours of classroom training and 60 hours of training on the job; and developing guidelines for training flight crews who face threats.