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Running the Gauntlet

There is no magic bullet. The FAA, the Gore Commission, and the manufacturers are only now accepting the notion that different inspection systems will have to work together, channeling luggage and people through multiple layers of scrutiny. “A gauntlet is really the way to go,” says Thermedics president Jeffrey Langan. He is now marketing his EGIS trace detector for examining people already identified as suspicious or for inspecting bags that have triggered alarms in x-ray machines. EG&G and Quantum are jointly producing a large unit that can perform both x-ray and quadropole tests. Quantum will also offer the QScan-1000 as an add-on to an EG&G x-ray baggage scanner; x-rays are still the only way to find metal weapons.

A gauntlet might improve speed as well as detection. Langan figures the new generation of x-ray machines would clear 80 percent of the people and 90 percent of the bags. The remainder would be more closely scrutinized by operators, who might ask passengers to step aside and turn on electronics or open luggage. This would clear all but 1 percent of the people and bags. These would be analyzed with the more precise but time-consuming trace detectors or quadropole machines. Britain’s Heathrow Airport is trying this approach with InVision’s CTX-5000 and Thermedics’ EGIS machine.

Gauntlets would be costly, since the airlines would have to install several new expensive machines at each checkpoint. Better software would also be needed to coordinate the machines. But ganging machines together could help manufacturers pass FAA criteria. Langan says the FAA “should come up with a standard set of test bags and a dummy with materials hidden under its clothes, give them to the manufacturers, and say, You pick your combination of technologies and run these through. If you meet the criteria, you can put this system on the market.’ “

Linking Bags to Passengers

Not all solutions to terrorism require state-of-the-art technology. The Gore Commission is pushing two decidedly low-tech ideas: bag matching and passenger profiling.

Bag matching could be a powerful deterrent but could prove to be an operational nightmare. Each checked bag is tagged with a bar code that matches a code on its owner’s ticket. If the passenger does not board a plane, his or her bags are removed before takeoff. The Lockerbie explosion was caused by a bomb in a piece of luggage that had been checked by a passenger who never boarded. Congress subsequently required the airlines to use bag matching on all international flights. It is not used on domestic flights.

In September, President Clinton directed the FAA to quickly start a month-long bag-matching test at a major hub airport. The airlines objected strenuously on the grounds that bag matching would add significant delay to boarding procedures. Bag matching is doable on international flights because bags must be checked well ahead of boarding, and because there are few tricky connections to coordinate. But in the domestic hub-and-spoke system, which handles 850 million bags a year, connections are frequent and fast. David Fuscus, spokesperson for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, says that during peak times at O’Hare, 20 planes dock every 15 minutes. Thousands of passengers race to connecting flights, which depart on the average only 25 minutes later. Tracking every bag, instead of containers of bags, and checking each one against a passenger manifest in that time would be “impossible,” Fuscus says.

Furthermore, if a passenger gets sick and must leave the plane, or a late arrival doesn’t show, the ground crew would have to tunnel into the plane’s luggage bays to find that person’s bag, remove it, and resecure the hold. FAA audits indicate that it takes 20 minutes to find and remove this needle in the haystack-if the process is done efficiently. Delays incurred with bag matching could cost the airlines more than $2 billion a year in lost revenue, according to an FAA study.

Bending to airline pressure, the White House has agreed to let the FAA stretch out the test program, which it had begun with Northwest Airlines. But the vice-president’s office doesn’t buy the airlines’ argument. During a press conference on security, Elaine Kamarck, Gore’s senior policy adviser, said, “We believe that with technology, some ingenuity, and reengineering we can move to full passenger bag match.”

If bags were tagged with disposable radio transmitters, they would be easier to locate once in a cargo hold, according to Jesse Beauchamp, professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Beauchamp chairs the NRC’s Committee on Commercial Aviation Security and is a member of the Gore Commission. There could even be some side benefits, he says: recent tests in Britain have resulted in fewer lost bags.
“Passenger profiling” could also speed up bag matching-and the gauntlets-by predetermining which people are suspicious, and thus who should be more closely inspected and which bags should be tracked. By clearing the plainly “innocent” in advance, security people could focus their time and machines on the “unknowns.” The October 9 legislation authorizes the FAA to adapt a system used by Customs officials to zero in on drug traffickers.

Profiling is done by comparing what the airlines know about a passenger against an abstract list of factors that warn of possible danger. A frequent business traveler on his or her usual route might be sent directly to the plane, while a passenger from a country known to support terrorism-and who pays cash for a one-way ticket-will likely be x-rayed and sniffed. Northwest is developing a profiling scheme with FAA funding that would complement its bag-matching plan.

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