NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Checked Baggage Going Unscreened at Nation's Airports

October 22, 2001

Most European countries have adopted the goal of screening 100 percent of checked bags by 2003 -- and some are already meeting that goal. The U.S. government, on the other hand, has stopped short of requiring 100 percent screening or even setting hard deadlines to meet that standard.

In 1996, the Federal Aviation Administration was given funds to buy high-tech baggage scanners and 142 of them were deployed at 47 airports nationwide. While that's only about 12 percent of the nation's airports, they serve 97 percent of the nation's flying public. But only a tiny fraction of checked bags are actually screened for explosives.

  • A survey by the Transportation Department's inspector general found that although the scanners are capable of screening 225 bags an hour, more than one-third of the machines screen less than that number in a day.
  • One major U.S. carrier had only one explosives scanner for its entire nationwide operation before Sept. 11.
  • The program is voluntary, with the government purchasing the equipment and the carriers accepting it -- then paying to run it.
  • In a country that moves more than 1 billion bags a year, the government would need to purchase 2,000 high-tech scanners to achieve 100 percent coverage -- at a cost of more than $2 billion.

As reasons for avoiding use of the scanners they have, airlines contend the machines are too cumbersome, too expensive and cause too many delays.

Since Sept. 11, the FAA has ordered the airlines to use the scanners continuously. But the inspector general say the latest government inspections show airline use "doesn't meet my definition of continuous."

Source: Editorial, "Checked Baggage Unscreened, Despite Terrorist Threat," USA Today, October 22, 2001.


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