Expert: Carry-on bags still pose a threat to planes

TSA screeners continue to fail to detect dangerous articles in passenger’s carry-on bags. Carry-on articles can include a host of items such as bags with clothes, cosmetics, electronics, computer cases, briefcases, loose items in shopping bags, baby paraphernalia, handicapped aids, cakes, pastries, chocolates, liquids, and various other assorted items.

In addition, contraband liquids or other articles concealed on a persons’ body under their clothing are not easily detected except by sophisticated new technical detection systems such as the now controversial low-dose backscatter X-ray or millimeter wave technology body-scanners.

The problem is a mixture of human fallibilities along with our stone-age permissive traveling philosophies. We allow passengers to carry virtually everything into passenger cabins. This is a decades old problem.

A recommendation to restrict the size and number of carry on articles was a part of the FAA’s Baseline Working Group (BWG) security review in late 1996. This problem was also addressed in the immediate post-9/11 days by one of U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta’s two Rapid Response Teams.

The FAA did not implement the BWG’s recommendations and the TSA has not controlled the number and size of carry-on articles. The TSA and industry have since developed explosives screening technology that would make it possible to resolve a part of the carry-on screening problem but the TSA has not deployed that equipment operationally.

The problem, simply stated, is that the larger the carry-on article the more difficult it is for an X-ray screener to detect dangerous objects within the mish-mash of articles. This argument is bolstered by the fact that the X-ray technology currently used at these screening checkpoints are imaging systems – not automated explosives or weapons detectors. This is compounded further by the number of articles carried into passenger cabins by some individuals. Passengers now attempt to pack everything in their carry-on bags to avoid having to pay the airline’s checked bag fees.

One would think that TSA screening personnel who are standing in front of screening checkpoints would focus on the number of each passenger’s carry-on articles but these individuals are positioned to advise passengers about the things they need to send through the X-ray units versus what they can carry through a walk-through metal detector or the new body scanners.

Restricting the one bag to something the size of a laptop computer would also result in less cluttered bags. After all, one can only pack a limited amount of items in a small bag. Severely restricting the number and size of carry-on articles, as was done by the UK and the U.S. following the August 2006 terrorist bombing threat improving both security and safety. An added benefit was the speeding up of the security screening process.

Complicating this safety/security issue is the opposition by some airlines and other industry representatives who oppose any change to the carry-on practices. The airlines object to checking more bags as it would increase their labor costs because it might require them to hire more baggage handlers.

But the principal reason may be because it would reduce the space available in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft for the carriage of cargo. Cargo is reportedly the difference between a profit or a loss on a number of flights between certain city-pairs.

The TSA has not publicly weighed in on the issue of the number of passenger carry-on articles. However, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate appropriations subcommittee on March 2, 2011, that these carry-ons are creating more work for the TSA, to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars annually.

Actually, two hundred and fifty million dollars is but a small portion of what these additional carry-on bags are costing us. Let’s add the cost of the failure of our TSA screening personnel to detect disassembled IED components, explosives, etc. in these cluttered bags.

It is long past the time that his problem should have been solved.

About the author: Billie H. Vincent is a retired FAA Aviation Regulatory, Safety, Security, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) expert now serving as the president and CEO of aviation consulting firm ASI. He is a former Director of Civil Aviation Security for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with over 55 years of aviation experience, including senior positions as Chief of the New York En-route (ATC) Center and head of FAA training. As president of ASI, Mr. Vincent has directed and participated in over 90 aviation projects worldwide. Mr. Vincent participated in numerous international aviation conferences and is active in the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) and other aviation organizations.