Mr. Barnett Goes to Washington

By Peter Horner

Arnold Barnett, the George Eastman Professor of Management Science at MIT's Sloan School of Management, testified Jan. 23 before the U.S. House of Representatives' Aviation Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure in support of positive passenger bag match. PPBM ensures that checked luggage gets on a plane only if the passenger who checked it boards the plane as well. Congress made PPBM mandatory for originating (but not connecting) passengers boarding U.S. domestic flights as of Jan. 18. Previously, PPBM had only been required on international flights originating from the United States.

Most U.S. airlines had resisted domestic PPBM, fearing that it would be costly, force them to reduce operations because of delays, and would add, as one airline official put it, "zero" security benefit.

Barnett chaired the FAA Technical Team that investigated the feasibility of domestic PPBM. In a 1997 experiment involving 11 airlines, 8,000 flights and 750,000 passengers, Barnett's group concluded that: 1. PPBM-caused departure delays would impact one out of seven flights; 2. the average departure delay would be one minute; 3. PPBM would cost about 40 cents per passenger enplanement; and 4. no reduction in flight schedules would be required.

Noting that provisions in the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act required domestic PPBM, Barnett told the Congressional Subcommittee that he was "elated by this development, and believe that it arrived not a moment too soon."

Barnett testified that "intelligent terrorists know that they are now unlikely to reach the cockpit, and that growing vigilance by travelers and crews makes sabotage less likely in the passenger cabin. Thus, had Congress not acted decisively with its 60-day screening requirement, the luggage compartment could well have become the most promising venue for destroying an aircraft."

After outlining his research team's findings for Congress and countering many of the criticism of PPBM, Barnett turned his attention to suicidal attacks. "It has also been asserted that PPBM offers no protection in itself against suicidal terrorists," Barnett testified. "That statement is absolutely true. But, historically, very few terrorists who have attacked airplanes have been suicidal.

"Those who sabotaged Pan Am 103, Air India 182 and UTA 772 were not present when these planes blew up; nor were those whose bombs brought down planes from Thailand to Colombia. The terrorists who plotted in the mid-1990's to destroy a dozen U.S. jets coming home from Asiaãa plot which apparently involved Al Qaedaãwere not suicidal. Unless we view all acts of sabotage before Sept. 11 as irrelevant, we should not discount the value of measures that deter nonsuicidal terrorists.

"And, paradoxically, bag-match might help deter some terrorists willing to die. If such a terrorist checks a bag laden with explosives, PPBM forces him to proceed to the gate ready to board his plane. But, now and increasingly in the future, his checked luggage could also be inspected at the airport by other means. If such an inspection revealed his bomb, PPBM's restriction on his mobility might mean that he could quickly be located and arrested.

"That circumstance is important because even someone willing to die in a successful explosion might be averse to life imprisonment for a failed one. Moreover, a group thinking of dispatching such a terrorist might be unnerved by the prospect that he might soon be under interrogation. The crucial point is thatãin combination with other forms of baggage screeningãbag match could be useful against some suicidal terrorists. It cannot in its own right prevent their success, but it can greatly increase the price of failure."

During the course of his testimony, Barnett made three specific recommendations: 1. Even when explosive detection machines are fully deployed, PPBM should be continued; 2. No checked bag should be exempted from PPBM because it has passed a screening test like a hand search; and 3. PPBM should be extended as rapidly as possible to domestic connecting passengers.

"There is every reason to fear that terrorists are still fascinated by aviation," Barnett concluded, "and that their further success against airplanes would horrify the American people, devastate the airline industry, and gravely harm the national economy. As with earthquakes, an aftershock to Sept. 11 could cause more damage than the original event itself. But that calamity is less likely now because bold decisions by Congress have yielded positive bag match.

"After a British victory early in the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher admonished journalists to 'just rejoice at that news.' All Americans can rejoice that, at long last, unaccompanied checked bags with their attendant dangers are disappearing from the skies over our country."

Editor's Note:

The full text of Barnett's remarks and testimony appears in the Congressional Record of Jan. 23, 2002. The FAA Technical Team's Report (Barnett, Shumsky, Hansen, Odoni and Gosling) was published in the March-April 2001 issue of Operations Research. Describing the report as "superb analysis," Congressman James Oberstar of Minnesota, the Democratic chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, urged Undersecretary of Transportation Security John Magaw to read the Technical Team's paper.