WASHINGTON – The airlines and the government will meet Friday's deadline for stepped-up screening of baggage for explosives, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Wednesday.
Bags will be checked by hand, explosive-detection machines or bomb-sniffing dogs, or matched to boarding passengers, Mineta told the Transportation Research Board, an industry group.
"The department has taken the necessary action to meet the requirement, using the full menu of options provided for in the law," he said. Some congressional Democrats criticized the plans as inadequate.
As an alternative to actual inspections, airlines can use a passenger-bag match — a strategy where no bag will be loaded on an originating flight unless the passenger also boards.
However, if a passenger connects to a different plane, the airline does not have make sure he or she boards the second time before loading the luggage.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt assailed Mineta's statement, saying the Bush administration was too narrowly interpreting the requirements of the law Congress passed to strengthen security.
"The law requires that every bag on every flight be screened, but the Bush administration said today that it will match bags with passengers," the Missouri Democrat said in a statement. "While that is an important part of airline security, it will not take care of the issue of screening bags for bombs."
"Furthermore, officials will not be matching bags on connecting flights, which means that not all of the bags will be matched to passengers, creating another security loophole," Gephardt said.
That amounts to "an Achilles' heel in the security system," said Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.
But it does enable airlines to avoid serious delays, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group.
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 end game that we've got our minds on," Jackson said. "We'll get stronger every week and we'll deploy more tools."
Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the Transportation Committee's aviation panel, praised Mineta's announcement.
"The measures are exactly what we called for in the law," Mica said. "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."
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 hand-held equipment at security checkpoints, Mineta said.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport will be a "laboratory" airport where new security measures and technologies will be tested, Mineta said Wednesday.
Mineta said the new Transportation Security Administration, created by President Bush following the Sept. 11 attacks, will work with Maryland officials, using the airport to study security operations, test techniques and technology, and train senior TSA managers.
Paul Hudson, director of the Ralph Nader-affiliated Aviation Consumer Action Project, took a dim view of the plan.
"To say we've met the deadline is both deceptive and dangerous," Hudson said. "There's clearly a threat of suicide-type terrorist attacks."
For example, Hudson said, the plan won't protect against suicide bombers like those who hijacked four planes Sept. 11, or passenger Richard Reid, who was accused of trying to blow up a plane with explosives in his shoes last month. A federal grand jury accused him Wednesday of being an al-Qaida trained terrorist.
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.
In addition, the Transportation Department announced that several companies would lend executives to the agency to help build the Transportation Security Administration. The companies include the Walt Disney Co., which will give advice on waiting lines, Intel Corp. and Fluor Corp., a defense firm. The three companies have given $1.8 million to federal candidates and the political parties since Jan. 1, 1999.
Mineta said the department's legal and ethics advisers signed off on the program, but Charles Lewis, director of the watchdog Center for Public Integrity, said it raises concerns.
"It presents a coziness and a substantial relationship between several powerful corporations seeking favors and a federal government department," Lewis said. "It doesn't take much imagination to imagine what might happen next."