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 Tuesday, 31 December, 2002, 13:16 GMT
Q&A: Will increased US airport security work?

All luggage passing through commercial airports in the US is to be checked for explosives from 31 December at the order of Congress.

This will involve over one billion pieces of luggage being screened every year. BBC News Online looks at what is going to be done and asks whether the measures will work.

What are the new measures?

The measures ordered by Congress involve the screening of luggage passing through 429 major US airports. Before the 11 September attacks, only one in 20 bags was checked.

The new full screening is to be carried out using scanning equipment, sniffer dogs, hand-held particle trace detectors and hand searches.

The former security director at the US Federal Aviation Administration, Cathyl Flynn, says the new measures are as good as could have been developed within the tight deadline set by Congress. He believes they will "substantially diminish" the risk of bombs passing through airports in luggage.

The Transportation Security Administration has asked passengers to help the screening by taking greater care in the packing of luggage and by leaving bags unlocked so they can be checked manually if necessary. The TSA has said that in some cases locks on baggage will be broken in order to carry out checks.

Will the measures be implemented on time?

Federal officials have admitted that the measures cannot be brought into force everywhere. James Loy, the head of the TSA, said that a handful of airports would not meet the deadline for installing equipment.

Aviation security expert Chris Yates of Janes Information told BBC News Online that the measures are more of a public relations exercise than a realistic tightening of security.

He says that detection equipment is in short supply and that the screening will be a "piecemeal" operation using a wide variety of techniques.

Will the screening work?

The luggage screening devices were expensive, according to Chris Yates, at about $1.2m for one machine. If every airport had to install them at check-in desks, there would be huge congestion and delays.

He warned that scanning devices had poor failure rates with lots of false alarm readings but also false negatives - failure rates can be as high as 30%.

The TSA itself has in the past admitted problems with detection.

Knives, guns and explosives carried by federal undercover inspectors were missed by Los Angeles International airport screeners at checkpoints 41% of the time in an airport security test.

The test - which checked security at America's 32 biggest airports - was carried out in June by the TSA.

What other measures are in force?

The US has started using armed air marshals on flights to combat attempted hijacks. Other countries, including Britain, have plans to do the same.

The other main check is on passengers and their hand luggage when they check in or go through departure gates. More rigorous searches of passengers have been carried out since 11 September, 2001.

In early December, airport security officials reported that during the US Thanksgiving holiday in November they had seized:

  • 16,000 knives;
  • six guns;
  • 98 box cutters (the weapon used to take over aircraft during the 11 September attacks);
  • and over 1,000 clubs or bats.

But on 10 December, there was a relaxation in the number of checks and they are now carried out on a selective basis.

Aviation security expert Chris Yates says it is "ludicrous" to be cutting checks on passengers when the 11 September attacks and the activities of the shoe-bomber Richard Reid all involved passengers rather than their luggage.

How carefully are airport staff screened?

FBI checks have been carried out on airport security and screening staff, but there is a long way to go before all airport staff can be screened and their backgrounds checked.

But screening during 2002 did reveal over 1,000 airport personnel who were working illegally because of immigration or work permit irregularities.

The importance of checking airport staff was highlighted by the arrest of a French airport employee in late December and the discovery of explosives and guns in his car.

See also:

31 Dec 02 | Americas
10 Dec 02 | Americas
04 Dec 02 | Americas
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