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Securing the Skies

January 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: In November, two months after four hijacked jets were involved in the September 11 terrorism attacks, Congress passed a new law mandating a series of aviation security improvements. The first major deadline is tomorrow, when all checked bags must be screened before being loaded onto the airplane.

Airlines will have a number of options to choose from, which include: Using explosive detection machines, using bomb-sniffing dogs, increasing hand searches by security officers, and so-called bag-matching, by which every bag is matched to an actual passenger on the plane. The new law also creates a new federal agency to oversee airline security. Its first chief, John Magaw, is with us now for a newsmaker interview. Welcome.

JOHN MAGAW, Transportation Security Administration: Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you going to make the deadline? Will every bag getting on a plane tomorrow be screened in some way?

JOHN MAGAW: It will; the bags will be screened in one way or another. We’re going to meet the law, the airlines and those employees there will meet the law as prescribed by Congress.

RAY SUAREZ: Now I know that at the end of this road, the intention is that all bags will be mechanically screened. Do you with know what portion of the airports in the country will be able to comply with that level of screening or what percentage of the flights tomorrow will be?

JOHN MAGAW: There are less than 170 machines in the country somewhere near a hundred and sixty-one or sixty-two, so that barely scratches the surface when a year from now in order to do all of those we’ll need an excess of 2,000.

RAY SUAREZ: So it’s these other measures carrying most of the weight tomorrow?

JOHN MAGAW: That’s correct; it’s the other measures that will carry most of the weight but wherever the machines are the explosive detection machines they will be used as close to full-time as possible.

RAY SUAREZ: So given that we’re moving to these other methods all over the country, will the flying public notice a big change tomorrow?

JOHN MAGAW: I don’t believe they will notice a big change, because the airlines have been doing some practice sessions for the last couple of weeks, been taking certain flights, and doing the different things that they plan to do. Without any real delays I suppose they’ll be scattered places around the country, but we don’t expect and I don’t believe the airlines either expects it to be a huge delay.

RAY SUAREZ: Now was there some contact between the federal government and the airlines on which mix of methods short of the machines they’re going to put in place? Have you been conferring with them along the way since your appointment about what will be done tomorrow?

JOHN MAGAW: We have had since my appointment, I’ve been in one meeting with the leaders or the airline representatives — in some cases it’s the CEO, in other cases it’s the vice president — but those that will carry forward. And there was an agreement across the board that within, within their own capabilities which ones will work the best for them and which ones can they do without large delays. And is that as safe of a services as they can perform? And — but to talk about that would lessen the security. So each one is slightly different.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you feel confident that in every place these alternative measures are being used, that the result will be as safe as electronic screening?

JOHN MAGAW: Well, the way this program is set up by Congress is to take it in steps, so that with what equipment is there and what facilities are there make it as safe as we possibly can. I don’t… The actual timeframe is for the full examination is one year. So by that one year point we should have machines and different technical equipment there that by then it will be even better.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit about bag matching. Maybe you could give us a for instance at a big airport, let’s say Kansas City International or a Saint Louis, not a major hub but a… Still a sizable airport. How would that be accomplished if you had an airplane going to another major city, a good-sized plane?

JOHN MAGAW: Most of the airlines have been doing that internationally for a number of years so they know how do it very well. It’s a matter of reprogramming their computer system and their information systems to do that in the information system, to match those bags.

RAY SUAREZ: So you would as a passenger give over your bags to the airlines, they would identify them in some way that they’re yours so you can get them at the other end and then before you board you would have to show… Present yourself and match up with your bag once more before you climb the jet way?

JOHN MAGAW: Well the computer does that. As you check in you’re registered in and your bag is registered with ticket numbers placed on that bag. And then when you are confirmed at the gate and you put your ticket through that electronic unit at the gate that becomes a bag and passenger match. If you don’t go to the gate and get on the plane, they will know that.

RAY SUAREZ: So potentially there could be some delays, some holdups because then you would have to fish a bag out of the system?

JOHN MAGAW: Oh, that happens today. There are some airlines that in this country have been doing a bag match whenever they could and if they have the capability and yes, if that person is not on there.

But it also, my understanding is that on that bag, where they put the ticket when you pick it up at the other end that they stick with the two pieces together that holds on the handle that that bag also has a marking on it, so they will know in what storage area within the plane they’re putting it. So they usually just have to go and pull off one of the big cubicles and they’ll find it in there.

So this isn’t a case of where you have to search through hundreds and hundreds of bags. They will be able to tell within a certain number of bags where it’s located.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the critics who have been weighing in on bag matching have talked about how this wouldn’t have stopped the September 11 terrorists attacks — where people are willing to kill themselves, simply having them match up with their bag before it’s loaded won’t stop them.

JOHN MAGAW: That’s correct. It’s a piece of the puzzle, a piece of the security. Once you have done the bag match, that’s why there are the requirements to do some other checks. Also, there is a program where certain elements are examined, and if some of those elements are not met, then that person is screened two, three, or four times before they ever get to the aircraft in a courteous and professional manner and so this is the first step in what was going to be the full plan completed in a year.

RAY SUAREZ: So if you don’t get them with the bag match, it may be some other aspect of the profile that you use look for people?

JOHN MAGAW: That’s correct.

RAY SUAREZ: Now still this is an airline responsibility, because your agency hasn’t taken full control of the security system yet. Will you be monitoring along with the airlines through this traveling weekend and maybe Monday get together and see how it’s going so far?

JOHN MAGAW: Well, we’ll be in contact through the whole weekend to see how it’s going but it’s very important for the public to realize that no airline, no company that’s out there wants something to happen on their aircraft. So the CEO’s and the employees all through these companies are trying to do everything they can with the assets they have to make it as safe as possible.

RAY SUAREZ: What has to happen during this phase-in until February 17 when your agency takes the fullest version of control of the security system, I imagine by the legislation?

JOHN MAGAW: Well there is FAA personnel at each one of these airports so they will be working with the airline people to make it as smooth a changeover as possible come February 17. At the same time, we just finished on schedule putting together a very detailed screeners’ training program, and so we’re going to begin very quickly.

There is 7,500 screener applications that came in in just a very few days. They’re going to be paid well, they’re going to be a very proud organization, because they’re going to be trained well and America is going to be proud of them.

Now, that takes time. The — February 17 we’ll take over the contracts. If there are people in there who are not doing what they’re supposed to do they’ll be relieved and as the new screeners come on board and are completely trained and not only trained, but tested, then as the months go by that force will be completely trained, completely uniformed and federal employees.

RAY SUAREZ: 28,000 — that’s a big number of employees to ramp up.

JOHN MAGAW: Well, you know, 28,000 — when you talk about 28,000 — when that number first came out, those were the screeners and the amount of personnel it takes to screen baggage today. That doesn’t count, now, the equipment that we’re going to be putting in. The explosive detection equipment — that takes handlers and it takes professional people running those. So that really is not a number that will end up being accurate in the end.

RAY SUAREZ: Will a lot of the people who are currently doing bag screening at the nation’s airport eventually become part of your federal force?

JOHN MAGAW: We’re uncertain as to how that number is going to sort out. The fact is, if they meet the requirements, and they go through the training and they pass the testing and then they go through the probationary period, I don’t know whether it will be 50 percent, 60 percent, whether it will be 65 percent, but whatever percent qualifies and is dedicated to doing this kind of work is now going to be paid more, and if they meet those requirements, we welcome them to stay.

They have some of the history, they have… Know some of the problems that have occurred and they’ll help us be better. But obviously if they cannot speak English, if they cannot write in English and can’t give someone directions in English that is easily understood, then they can’t be in those positions.

RAY SUAREZ: John Magaw thank you for joining us.

JOHN MAGAW: Thank you, sir.