The 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 airport security.

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. 

Using public 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 villains.

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 that.  

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI