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Who's Checking Your Bags?

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The tragedy of American Airlines flight 587 -- whatever brought it down -- raises an unsettling question: Just how easily could explosives end up onboard? The answer is not so reassuring: Checked baggage on flights leaving Kennedy, for the most part, makes it on the plane without so much as a sniff from a well-trained dog.

Until September 11, the number of checked bags screened on domestic airlines hovered at a dismally low 3 percent. The checked baggage that did get screened belonged to passengers whose travel patterns raised a red flag. "But that's only effective for as long as the profile remains a secret," says Bob Monetti, whose son died on PanAm flight 103, and who's now a security consultant for the FAA. "Now we all know that if you use cash or buy a one-way ticket, that's part of the profile -- nobody's going to try that." Since September 11, airlines have "greatly increased" the number of passengers whose checked baggage is randomly screened, claims the FAA, but to what extent, it won't say. Once a bag has been pulled aside for inspection, a machine that's essentially a cat scan for luggage sets off an alarm if materials with the density of explosives pass by (apparently salamis qualify, as do plastic ski boots, dense wads of money, and fruitcakes, among many other things). Trained personnel then check the screen and possibly inspect bags by hand, in the presence of the passenger.

At Kennedy, only in Terminal One is every piece of checked baggage screened, at the insistence of airlines that operate there (such as Japan Airlines and Air France). The FAA is currently making a push to get 100 percent of baggage screened by the year 2004, but until now, the machines have been used sparingly, for fear of delays from all those false-positive salamis. One of the few states in the country that's already established 100 percent bag screening is Hawaii, but that's to guard against what must have once seemed like the biggest threat: contraband agriculture.


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