Deterrent or Redundant?
But Barnett says the jury is still out about the effectiveness of the screening procedures to be used on checked baggage. He says Congress' bill is "a step forward conceptually, but how the principle will be applied is another matter." And he argues that bomb-detection is not a clear-cut operation.
"The bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 was in a Toshiba radio," notes Barnett. "What if you're scanning a bag and you see a Toshiba radio?"
For that reason, some argue, bag-matching could serve as an additional deterrent for non-suicide bombers who think they can slip bomb-carrying bags through security anyway; the practice would complement bomb-screening instead of being made redundant by it.
"Both of those measures are necessary and would in and of themselves increase security," says Adam Goldberg, a policy analyst at the Consumers' Union in Washington. "Any time you provide more scrutiny, more effective scrutiny, you're going to get a better result."
Testifying before the Senate last Wednesday, Kenneth Mead, the Department of Transportation's chief inspector, noted the bomb-detection machines currently used for screening checked baggage were being used erratically even after Sept. 11. He also noted that one overworked screener had been found falling asleep on the job.
And until now, the FAA has been operating on the assumption that it will be years before its two manufacturers of bomb-detection machines — InVision Technologies and L-3 — have the technology in place at every airport in America.
"The manufacturers have told us they could produce enough machines to make that possible by the end of 2004," says FAA spokesman Paul Takamoto. That production rate would have to be increased to comply with the new legislation.
How Much Would It Cost, Anyway?
Overall, Takamoto says the FAA is still "moving toward 100 percent bag-match" for domestic flights, and "seeing if it is possible at this point."
The airlines have tended to cite concerns over the cost of bag-matching, and say it would cause too many delays, especially for travelers with connecting flights.
But the FAA-funded survey headed by Barnett — in which bag-matching was used on 8,000 flights by 11 airlines for two weeks — found that fares would increase by less than 50 cents per passenger while adding a seven-minute delay to just one out of every seven flights, on the average.
Barnett says that when his group solicited estimates of the cost from the major airlines, "They played accounting games. Talk about fuzzy math." He says the airlines' price estimates were all higher than his, and varied wildly, with the largest eight times higher than the smallest.
None of the major airlines contacted for this piece would provide an estimate of the cost of bag-matching, citing general policies of not divulging security information.
But if the issue of bag-matching does come down to cost, polls have shown for more than a decade that the traveling public is willing to pay significantly more for airline tickets if it means ensuring tighter security.
In an August 1996 ABCNEWS poll, for instance, 77 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay 10 percent more for airline tickets if the money were used for safety and security measures.