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Are our planes secure?

Question: During the recent war in the Persian Gulf, what did the U.S. Postal Service know about airline security that you didn't? Answer: It may have been safer to be a package than a passenger.

Why? Airport and airline security was at an all-time high, right?

Technically, yes.

Shortly after the war began in mid-January, new security measures were imposed at airports throughout the United States.

It was called "Level Four" security. Under the heightened security measures, U.S. airports eliminated curbside check-in, banned unattended vehicles within 100 feet of terminal buildings and allowed only ticketed passengers onto concourses and in gate areas.

But during this time, was it really safer to fly?

If so, then why, in late January, did the Postal Service decide that any parcel weighing more than 12 ounces was to be rerouted to cargo aircraft or surface vehicles for delivery?

"We didn't want to run the risk of being targeted by terrorists using the mails. Mail as well as checked baggage wasn't being X-rayed," confirms Larry Dozier, a Postal Service spokesman at the Van Nuys, Calif., division office.

In practice, however, airline and airport security was just as vulnerable to terrorists, especially when it came to checked baggage. And it still is.

Before, during and, now, after the Gulf War, no U.S. airline was or is X-raying checked baggage on flights within the United States. And, with the possible exception of passengers making international connections, no U.S. airline matches passengers with bags.

On international flights, bags are matched with passengers when they check in for a flight. The number of checked bags is written on the passenger's ticket. When the passenger boards the plane, the ticket is pulled at the gate. Then, the numbers written on the tickets are totaled and matched with the number of bags loaded onto the plane. If the numbers match, the plane is cleared for departure.

What the lack of bag matching means on domestic flights is that virtually any kind of weapon and/or explosive device could easily be checked on board any U.S. airline, and since no bag/passenger matching system is in effect, a "passenger" can easily check in for a flight, check in his or her bags and never board the plane.

If the Postal Service was so worried about this major hole in airline security that it stopped using U.S. airlines to ship parcels, then what about people?

Most passengers still believe _ incorrectly _ that their checked bags are being X-rayed by airlines on domestic flights. Fact is, they were not X-rayed during the Gulf War. And they are not being X-rayed now.

"It is true," says Homer Boynton, managing director of security for American Airlines, "that we do not X-ray checked baggage on domestic flights. As far as we're concerned, the only threat we deal with in the U.S. is hijacking. Until such time as the government says we have a different threat, we prepare ourselves for hijacking."

Despite the facts, many airlines are continuing to give misleading information about their security procedures to prospective passengers. I called the reservations lines of a dozen airlines. In each case I told the agents _ who deal with all public calls for reservations _ that my mother was worried about flying because of potential terrorism. I then asked each agent if the airline X-rayed all checked bags. Here's what some of them told me:

Alaska Airlines: "We do follow tight security procedures. We check all bags personally before they are checked onto the plane."

TWA: "Our security is good. We screen all bags and also spot-check handbags and bags being checked."

America West: "Airport security X-rays everyone (who) gets onto a plane as well as the bags. The bags that are checked are also X-rayed before being put on the planes."

Delta: "They (security personnel) spot-check both carry-on and checked bags."

United: "All bags go through a scanner (X-ray machine) before they go on the plane, and if there's something suspicious, the bag is opened and checked."

Not one airline reservations agent told the true story _ that on domestic flights, no checked baggage is X-rayed.

"If these airlines are telling you that they are X-raying checked baggage, they are lying," says Chris Witkowski, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, an air safety lobbying group.

"ACAP has been arguing, to little avail, for X-raying of checked passenger bags for more than a year. But the airlines just don't want to spend the money. In the meantime," he says, "the public thinks that their checked bags are being screened."

Indeed, airline and airport security in the United States has been traditionally structured toward identifying and deterring potential hijackers.

Metal detectors at airports have been particularly effective in screening out many weapons. Between 1973 and 1989, the Department of Transportation reports seizing more than 44,000 weapons at or near passenger security checkpoints.

But no airline has yet to embark on an effective screening procedure for checked bags.

And as soon as the Gulf War ended, many special interest groups began pressuring government agencies to relax the Level Four security restrictions.

Airport concessionaires and airlines lobbied both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation to allow meeters and greeters back into gate areas, as well as to reinstitute curbside check-in.

And the airlines also began a strong lobby to again carry the mail. (Carrying packages and mail amounts to nearly $1-billion a year in revenues for airlines. United, for example, received $133-million from carrying mail in 1989.)

On March 28, curbside check-in returned. And certain airport parking rules were lifted. In May, the additional restrictions were eased and meeters and greeters have been allowed into gate areas.

What about the mail now? How is it being transported?

Publicly, the Postal Service won't say. However, according to two well-placed sources _ one within the Postal Service and the other from a major U.S. airline _ much of the mail that had been pulled from U.S. carriers is once again flying on domestic airlines.

Suggestions ignored

Now that most airline security rules that were implemented during the Gulf War are being relaxed, what about some of airlines' own proposals for added security measures? What happened to them?

During the war, American Airlines was one of a number of carriers asked by the FAA to submit ideas that would help improve security. Managing director of security Homer Boynton, along with American chairman Robert Crandall, offered three proposals:

1. Eliminate advance boarding passes.

"We felt that if we issued boarding passes only at the airport," Boynton argues, "that it would give our employees a chance to have eye contact with our passengers, and make a visual check against certain profiles. But with advance boarding passes, a person can go straight to the gate and board the plane."

2. Continue to keep "meeters and greeters" out of gate areas.

3. Insist that all airline and airport checkpoints be staffed by trained airline personnel.

So far, not one of these suggestions has been implemented by the FAA. (And, as for suggestion No. 3, Boynton believes that it was not implemented because it would have been cost-prohibitive for smaller airlines or airlines currently in financial crisis.)

Boynton admits that the system is wide open to someone who simply can place a bomb inside a suitcase, check in for a flight and never board the plane.

In fact, says Boynton, "it's already happened."

On Oct. 29, 1985, a man put his wife and three children on board an American Airlines flight between Austin and Dallas. Inside one of the checked bags was a bomb. Fortunately, the bomb didn't detonate until the plane had landed in Dallas and was taxiing up to the gate. No one was injured.