For all the security improvements at airports after 9/11 -- full-body scans, bans on liquids, pat downs -- there is one check that airports aren't doing.
Bags checked at airline counters are scanned for possible explosives but not for loaded guns.
The loophole became apparent over the weekend at Los Angeles International Airport, when an undeclared, loaded .38-caliber handgun went undetected from the airport and almost onto an Alaska Airlines flight to Portland. It was discovered by ramp workers, who said the gun fell out of a duffel bag as they were about to load it on the plane.
At first, the incident appeared to be a breakdown of Los Angeles International Airport's extensive weapons detection system.
But Transportation Security Administration officials said they are not required to screen for loaded weapons in checked luggage, only in carry-on luggage. TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said the duffel bag in question went through an explosives scanner, as do all checked bags. It did not generate an alert.
"It may be an issue for some agency or the airline, but it's not a TSA issue. Our mandate is to screen baggage for explosives," he said.
No other organization claimed responsibility for catching loaded guns in checked bags either. Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the TSA is the only agency with authority to enforce federal airline security regulations. The FAA does not have staff checking baggage at airports.
It's illegal to pack a loaded gun in checked luggage and illegal to pack even an unloaded gun without declaring its presence. Violations of the regulations can carry a federal civil fine of up to $11,000 as well as possible criminal penalties.
Airlines ask customers to declare guns when they check in but do not screen the baggage for weapons.
Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for airlines, said that since creation of the TSA after the attacks of 9/11, airlines ceded baggage-screening authority to the agency.
Policies implemented to make screening more efficient may have meant that some non-explosive prohibited items, including guns, are more likely to get through.
When TSA instituted an explosives detection system to scan all checked bags, machine operators had to look at a screen image of the contents of each bag, said Quinten Johnson, a Florida-based aviation security consultant and former TSA federal security director at four airports in the Southeast. When they did so, they would frequently catch guns and other unauthorized items.
But in the interest of improving efficiency, the agency switched to a system in which the machine alerts the operator to bags containing potential explosives and operators are not required to look at the screen image for each bag. Melendez said the current protocol was rolled out at airports beginning in 2002.
Johnson said the effectiveness of the machines has not changed at all in terms of finding explosives, but it is now less likely that other prohibited items, including guns, will be detected.
"When it comes down to improving efficiency over looking for guns in checked bags, efficiency won over," he said.
He and some other experts said having loaded weapons in the cargo hulls of planes poses little threat because passengers don't have access to them while in flight. But some say they do present concerns.
"It's a combination of a security and a safety issue," said Glen Winn, another aviation security consultant and a former director of security at United Airlines. "If the gun goes off -- and it was a loaded gun -- you have potential for damage to the hydraulic, the electrical and the fuel system of the plane."
(Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.)
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