Government Accountability Office created a brief stir in the days
before the Thanksgiving travel peak with a report that its
undercover agents were able to sneak bomb ingredients through
Just what you wanted
to hear, right?
The GAO report was
delivered as public testimony to the House Committee on Oversight
and Government Reform, but lots of details were omitted.
Here's the gist: GAO
investigators tested screeners at 19 U.S. airports. The
investigators used the components for a two-part, homemade bomb,
consisting of a liquid and a detonator, and an improvised
incendiary device made from commonly available products (including
a liquid) that are banned from passenger baggage.
information, the investigators identified "weaknesses" in the
system and passed their materials through the checkpoints in their
carry-on bags and on their persons, even when screeners appeared to
be following procedures.
That sounds alarming,
until we remind ourselves about what we don't know.
We don't know how
many times the screeners were fooled. For all we know, the
investigators made it through 2% of the time. Or maybe they got
through 99% of the time. The GAO didn't say.
In any event, we
trust that the responsible officials will mull the results and make
any needed changes to improve things. In the meantime, what is the
traveling public supposed to do with this information?
With hundreds of
millions of passengers passing through U.S. airports every year,
some small number are going to slip through with pocket knives or
toothpaste (or worse) that they either forgot about or deliberately
tried to hide. Most of us know that.
But most of us also
know that the goal of the screening operation is not to catch
everything, for that is impossible, but to catch enough stuff that
the bad guys can't take the risk and to have other procedures in
place (the TSA calls them "layers") to trip up the true
The GAO report tells
us that trained undercover agents can manage to beat the system,
sometimes. In an open democracy, we suppose there's some benefit to
having the government make this public. We're not so sure, however,
that the public really appreciates it.
" " "
The odds of being
bumped involuntarily from a U.S. airline flight in 2006 were
something like one passenger out of every 9,901. For the first nine
months of 2007 the odds came down to one out of 8,265. The
Transportation Department puts it a little differently and reckons
the denied-boarding rate as 1.01 bumpings per 10,000 passengers in
2006, and 1.21 passengers per 10,000 for the first three quarters
of this year.
Either way, we don't
see much cause for alarm.
These statistics are
in the air again because the DOT is proposing to make several
changes to its rules governing oversales and denied-boarding
compensation. We think the DOT's proposals, as described in our
news pages today, are pretty good -- particularly the plan to boost
the maximum compensation levels, which have been eroded by
inflation since first adopted in 1978. As we have said before in
this space, the rules have been around a long time and need to be
updated from time to time.
What we would reject
is any suggestion that the rules need to be toughened because of an
increased incidence of bumping. As far as we're concerned, the odds
are still acceptable, and the airlines deserve some credit for