Better Airline Safety Is in the Bag

By Jane Black Since September 11, hundreds of new security measures have been put in place to make Americans safer, or at least feel safer. Hotels and corporate offices now require guests to present a photo ID at check-ins and entrances. Airlines refuse to let passengers carry razor blades, scissors, or screwdrivers on flights. The U.S. Patriot Act, passed just six weeks after the attacks, expanded the government's ability to wiretap American citizens -- powers that'll be in effect until 2005. This week, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are expected to propose legislation that would allow such snooping permanently.

Sadly, most of these efforts give only the illusion of greater security. September 11 proved it's easy enough for a terrorist to get a driver's license. Even the most determined al Qaeda member probably wouldn't succeed in hijacking a plane with tweezers. And the government has yet to prove that its new sweeping surveillance powers have succeeded in anything more than invading personal privacy (see BW Online, 12/18/02, "Snooping in All The Wrong Places").

NO CONNECTION. At least one surefire way exists to improve security and protect personal privacy: positive passenger bag matching. It would require that no checked bag be transported on a plane if its owner doesn't board the flight. Bag-matching became standard practice in Europe and Asia in the 1980s after suitcase bombs brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Air India's Flight 182 en route to London, and UTA's Flight 772 to Paris. In all three cases, the terrorists weren't on board.

Yet, here in the U.S. -- where security is supposedly now top priority -- authorities have chosen to ignore bag-matching. Instead, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has embraced largely untested electronic-detection systems that screen bags for bombs and other explosives.

As of Jan. 1, the TSA is required to match bags only if an electronic-scanning device to detect bombs isn't available. Agency spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan says 100% of bags are screened by "congressionally approved methods," which include electronic scanning, K-9 teams, hand searches, and bag-matching. And that's just on originating flights. Bags aren't required to be scanned or matched before a connecting flight. Rhatigan declined to elaborate because of the "sensitive nature of the information."

DOMESTIC DISPUTE. Sensitive, indeed. Critics charge that the overriding reason the TSA has overlooked such an obvious, sensible security measure is because U.S. airlines have opposed bag-matching for years. They fear it might delay flights and persuade short-haul travelers to take a train or drive instead.

In 1996, after the deadly crash of TWA Flight 800, a commission headed by then Vice-President Al Gore recommended bag-matching on all originating and connecting flights. In 1998, the airlines agreed to institute it on all international flights. For domestic flights, airlines agreed only to searches of passengers selected by a computerized screening system.

After September 11, bag-matching was back on the agenda. Yet struggling airlines complained that implementing it on all domestic flights would drive them into bankruptcy. In November, 2001, Delta (DAL) CEO Leo Mullins warned that complete bag-matching would force his carrier to reduce operations by 25%. Industry lobbyists complained that it would add "zero" security benefit. Airlines also argued that the use of sophisticated explosives detectors makes the practice superfluous.

MINOR DELAYS. Such claims have zero merit, says Arnold Barnett, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management and a former chair of the Federal Aviation Administration's technical team. In 1996, the team was asked to investigate the feasibility of bag-matching. In a 1997 experiment, which tested 11 airlines, 50 pairs of cities, 8,000 flights, and 750,000 passengers, Barnett showed that domestic bag-matching would cause delays averaging seven minutes on only one in seven flights and would require no reduction in flight schedules. The cost: 40 cents per passenger on average -- far less than the $2.50 tax that's levied on airline tickets to pay for TSA security. Voluntary bag-matching by JetBlue (JBLU) and Frontier Airlines (FRNT) this year have resulted in short delays on about 3% of flights.

Moreover, electronic-detection systems are anything but perfect. Representative John Mica (D-Fla.) who chairs a House Aviation subcommittee, calls the system "semi-ineffective" because terrorists are always developing new explosives that electronic-detection machines might miss. One clever terrorist designed a bomb intended for a jetliner with the thickness of wax paper, which he then built into the frame of a suitcase. Only the security skills of Israel's El Al foiled the plot.

Barnett argues that bag-matching would deter bombers far more than electronic-detection systems. It ensures that the terrorist will proceed to the gate to board his plane. If, while he's waiting, detection devices reveal a bomb, he could be quickly located and arrested. Without bag-matching, he more than likely will already have left the airport. "The combination of bag-match and explosives detection could be far more potent than either measure on its own," Barnett wrote in a Dec. 17 letter to TSA chief Admiral James Loy. He received a thank you note that contained no indication the TSA is contemplating action.

GOT A LIGHT? Why is the TSA turning its back on such sensible security? "There are lots of agendas that have nothing to do with security working behind the scenes," says Bruce Schneier, a security expert who has written extensively about the trade-off between security and privacy. For example, Schneier says the airlines embraced mandatory photo IDs in the 1990s because that clamped down on the black market for tickets. Razor blades, scissors, and screwdrivers are forbidden in carry-on luggage. But matches and lighters, which could be used to ignite explosives, aren't, even though it's forbidden to smoke in airports or on any flight.

Those silly security measures don't make me feel safer. And they won't deter terrorists. The government spends a lot of time talking about the necessary trade-offs between security and privacy. Yet, bag-matching is a solution that would make everyone safer without invading privacy, making it just the kind of solution that security and privacy advocates should agree on. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column

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