Airline Security: Deadline Met?

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Checked baggage goes through a bomb detection scanner

Much to the surprise of industry observers and congressional naysayers, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta announced Wednesday that the country's airlines and airports will, in fact, meet the federally imposed January 18th deadline to begin screening of all checked baggage for explosives.

The reason? Mineta has, shall we say, broadened the definition of what it means to "check for explosives." According to the directive, all checked bags will be subject to one of four security measures: bomb sniffing dogs, searches by hand, tests for explosives, or at the very least, matched with a passenger on board the plane. And while the first three options provide a fairly good screen against terrorists, the last one is not exactly foolproof — it's hardly a deterrent for a suicide bomber to have his own bomb-toting luggage on the plane. It is also the measure most likely to be employed at the majority of airports, at least for now.

At least two high-ranking congressional Democrats are not happy about the Transportation Secretary's decision to accept these pared-down security plans. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Jim Oberstar, lead Democrat on the House Transportation Committee are calling the bag-matching measure an "Achilles heel" in the security system.

Despite the criticism, Mineta sounded a determined note as he made his pronouncement before the Transportation Research Board. "All of us here understand that we have entered a new era in transportation, an era in which a determined enemy has challenged one of America's most cherished freedoms — namely, the freedom of mobility."

The declaration sent airports' security teams (who have been dreading this moment for a long, long time) into a frenzied state of preparation. Airlines will maintain control over security only until February 17th, when a new federal agency will take over.

Increased security is good news, certainly, but it is inherently more time-consuming than lax security — a fact that will likely be all too apparent to travelers on Friday morning. And while most Americans have expressed loud support for better and more effective baggage screening, their resolve will be put to the test as they wade through longer lines, endure more official questions and perhaps even suffer through the very literal public airing of their dirty laundry.