Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Air security deadline looms

Airlines having trouble with operational and cost issues

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — The nation's airlines begged Congress and the White House for a tough, new security law as a way to persuade people to fly again after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        But now that they have the law, they're not sure they can meet its deadlines — or whether the operational hassles and financial costs of implementing it will be worth it.

        The airlines have just 30 days to comply with a deadline for scanning for explosives all of the approximately 1 billion bags checked at the nation's airports.

        A controversial program called bag matching — or not allowing baggage on a plane unless its owner is onboard — appears to be the main candidate for filling the bill.

        It's unclear whether the cure will be worse than the illness, however, because bag matching:

        • Can be time consuming, meaning more delays and reducing the number of flights at airline hubs such as Cincinnati.

        • Doesn't guarantee a bomb won't get onboard.

        • Can impose more labor or technology costs, which can translate into higher fares, a smaller labor force and fewer flights, or even worse returns for stockholders than they're already seeing.

        Airline and government officials say they are committed to meeting the deadline.

        “It is one of our top challenges, and we are doing as much as is humanly possible to making every deadline required in the legislation,” said Hank Price, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is creating a new security agency to oversee passenger and baggage screening.

        Yet many aviation experts and officials have no idea how airlines will comply by next month, pointing out problems with bag matching and other options set out by the law.

        For example, Ben DeCosta, general manager of Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, told Congress this month that his facility did not have enough workers or machines to meet the Jan. 18 deadline.

        And other experts point out that prior to Sept. 11, the Federal Aviation Administration had set a goal of 2012 to screen 100 percent of all checked bags.

        “This current call for altogether new procedures to be implemented next month is just nuts. That's not going to happen,” said Rick Charles, a former airline executive and now the director of the aviation program at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Match game

        Nearly 34 million bags went through the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 2000.

        And while airport officials and airline representatives won't say much on the topic, it appears that airlines at Cincinnati will meet the Jan. 18 requirement primarily through bag matching.

        “That's the only way it can be done anywhere until the technology improves,” said Richard Golaszewski, an security expert and partner in GRA Inc., a suburban Philadephia-based airline consulting firm.

        Bag matching is when airline workers match the bags on the plane with the passenger list, pulling any luggage belonging to a passenger who does not get onboard.

        There are a variety of ways for doing this. One is to have ramp workers manually scan the owner tags against a passenger list passed from the gate when the flight has finished boarding.

        Airlines with more advanced technology can use bar-coded tags that correspond with bar-coded boarding passes, printing out lists as a person turns in his ticket and heads down the ramp.

        Bag matching is just one of five techniques available to airlines under the new law. The others are:

        • Explosive-detection machines. Cincinnati does not have one of the $1 million machines, and officials do not expect one before the end of next year.

        • Bomb-sniffing dogs. There are only three dogs trained to detect explosives here, and each can actively search for only about an hour before their noses become desensitized.

        • X-ray machines. There are not nearly enough of such machines, which may or may not be big enough to scan all sizes of luggage.

        • Hand searches. Again, there are not enough airline workers to go through each bag by hand. Plus, constitutional concerns are raised if the bag's owner is not present during the search.

Ripple effect

        If airlines do eventually get procedures in place, they are seen as stop-gap measures.

        The new law also calls for explosive-detection systems to be in place at all airports by the end of 2002, and for the federal government to take over all screening functions — for passengers and baggage — in February.

        But until the machines are in place, a deadline equally unlikely to be met, the airlines and the government need to do something.

        That's where bag matching comes into play.

        This policy — already in place for all international flights — also appears to be the logical choice for most airlines, including Delta, which operates its second-largest hub locally.

        Airlines have historically fought this procedure, saying it is costly and time-consuming.

        Experts say they may be right, and that effects will trickle down to consumers — especially at an airline hub such as Cincinnati.

        To keep a schedule that can be met under the constraints of a bag-match program, some flights may be cut.

        To cover the higher costs of more manpower and better equipment, fares could go up. And delays, especially those created when bags and people don't match up, will probably increase.

        “If you tack on 15 minutes to the turnaround time for each flight and multiply that out over four different frequencies, that's an hour you've lost,” said Richard Butler, a economics professor and airline hub expert at San Antonio's Trinity University. “That means some reduction will have to be made to keep the connectivity viable. And when you reduce capacity but not demand, that will probably send prices up as well.”

Airlines object

        Bag matching, a common practice overseas, is required in the United States only on international flights unless an airport has an explosive-detection system. This was imposed after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

        Later, investigations found that the bomb that killed 270 had been in a bag checked by terrorists who did not board the plane themselves, and the bag itself had not been screened.

        Pan Am was later successfully sued for $19 million for lax security measures that allowed the bomb onboard.

        But international bag matching was as far as U.S. airlines were willing to go at the time, saying a domestic bag match program was impossible to implement systemwide. They still say that the bag-matching has its problems.

        “The industry has every intention of meeting the Jan. 18 deadline, but bag matching as a stand-alone measure is disruptive, inconvenient and does not stop suicidal bombers, which we now know are out there,” Michael Wascom, vice president of the Air Transport Association, the airline's major trade group, said this month.

        The Transportation Department's Mr. Price said, “We recognize that enhancements to bag matching are going to be needed to achieve 100 percent compliance. But bag matching will be an important part of the program.”

        Delta officials would not comment specifically on how they were planning to meet the deadline and search all bags, saying only that they were working with the government.

        Airline and government officials also would not comment on whether all bags would need screening, even those transferring at the hub here.

        The bag carrying the plastic explosives that blew up the Pan Am flight was transferred from a flight from Frankfurt, Germany, at London's Heathrow airport.

Can it be done?

        Deadlines aside, many experts question whether bag matching can be done effectively at all in an airport such as Cincinnati's, and wonder about the potential costs to local airlines and passengers.

        Not only is Cincinnati a Delta hub, but it is also the main hub for Erlanger-based regional carrier Comair, which depends on much quicker turnarounds than that of Delta's planes.

        This in turn allows the airline to schedule more flights, make more connections with its parent company Delta and in turn sell more tickets. This also keeps fares low — fewer seats would mean higher prices.

        Comair spokeswoman Meghan Glynn would not comment on how the airline plans to meet the deadline or how bag matching would affect the carrier's scheduling.

        “We intend to meet the deadline and we're working toward that end very diligently and we take it very seriously,” Ms. Glynn said.

        Ramp workers for Comair, who actually load the bags and would be the ones checking the lists, said the carrier has installed a partial bag-match program already.

        According to these workers, who asked to remain anonymous,passengers (or “selectees”) fitting a certain profile also have their baggage flagged. The flag can go up if a person paid cash, paid at the last minute, is flying one-way or is otherwise suspicious.

        And the bag flag means that a plane will not take off if a person's bag is on board but the person is not.

        Ms. Glynn would not confirm or deny that this procedure is in place.

        Those workers also said bag matching for all flights could be done while keeping the airline's schedules, but only if more workers are hired. In addition, Comair workers say technology needs upgrading so boarding passes are electronically scanned when a passenger boards the plane, so the bar code on the bag's tag can also be scanned.

        Delta officials acknowledge that they already have this technology installed locally and at its other major hubs and markets.

        Delta already has had its problems locally with baggage. After spending at least $45 million on a new computerized baggage handling system that became operational in 1994, the airline spent the next two years working out bugs in that system.

        Delta officials would not comment on what a bag matching program would do to that system.

        There's also the problem of missed connections. Officials from the Transportation Department, which will oversee the newly created Transportation Safety Agency, and the airlines would not say how they would handle a bag if it missed a connecting plane and the passenger made it.

        If there is a bag-match program in place, that bag would have a hard time making it on the next flight, because there would be no corresponding passenger.

        David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based airline passengers advocacy group, says one option would be to send that bag through an X-ray machine.

        “Or they could send it by ground transportation, or hold up the passenger until their bag gets there and send them on a later flight, or they open up the bag without the person there,” Mr. Stempler said. “And apart from X-rays, any of those are a nightmare.”

        Then there's the delay factor.

        Michael Gibbons, a member of the Kenton County Airport Board, which oversees the local airport, told of being held up for an hour recently on a Comair flight to Charleston, S.C., during the board's November meeting.

        He said the flight attendant came on the public address system three times, asking if there was anyone on the flight who should not be there. Finally, as the plane was getting ready for takeoff, the flight attendant asked one last time, and a passenger raised his hand.

        “Turns out this fellow was headed to Charleston, W.Va.,” Mr. Gibbons said. “And when we pulled up next to the plane he should have been on, they had every piece of bag pulled off the plane.

        “It was plain as day they were bag matching, and I would not have wanted to be that gentleman when he walked on that other plane — they had to have been two hours late. It backed us up quite a bit, too.”

What's next?

        As much as there is yet to be determined about how the airlines will meet the deadline, it's unknown what will happen if they don't. The law contains no penalties for missing deadlines, although when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said earlier this month that some deadlines were unattainable, he was scolded by several members of Congress.

        Still, U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, a Terrace Park Republican, says that transportation department officials have assured him that the letter of the law will be met by the deadline, and that most members of Congress understand the magnitude of the task.

        “That still does not mean that checked baggage will be screened to my satisfaction or the satisfaction of most of my constituents,” Mr. Portman said. “Most of the debate on this law was about whether to federalize the screeners. That to me was a distraction compared to dealing with the fundamental issue of what happens to the belly of the plane.

        “And even if we do meet this deadline, we've still got a lot more work to do in that area.”


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