When Flying, Please Remember to Board the Plane
by Guy Martin
Delta Flight 78, a nonstop between New York and Berlin, is an old Pan Am route left over from when only "allied" name carriers (British Airways, Air France, Pan American, and of course Aeroflot) were allowed to fly through the Soviet-approved air corridors over East Germany into the black heart of the Cold War. Americans on this flight usually feel the need to explain why they're going to Berlin. Most of the travelers are German and are headed home.
My plane is well away from the gate in queue for takeoff. The flight attendants flurry up and down the aisles. The first odd thing is the recount, then the announcement: "Could passenger Katherine Harton please identify herself?" Then, more urgently: "If passenger Katherine Harton is aboard the aircraft, please identify yourself."
Five minutes later, the plane peels out of the takeoff queue. "Ladies and Gentlemen," the captain says, "apologies for the inconvenience. We have a passenger who checked in but who didn't board. We can't fly with her bag, so we're returning to the gate, where the ground crew will take it off. Unfortunately, it's rush hour for nighttime departures here at JFK, so we've lost our position. We'll let you know what we're looking at in a delay. Again, apologies for the inconvenience." A gracious man.
A flight attendant wanders by, still asking for the girl. "Is that Katherine with a K or with a C?" I ask her. "K is what I've got," she says, showing me the note. The reconciliation of checked luggage--the matching of a traveling bag with a traveling passenger--is basic counter-terror action. We have it nicely built into our checked baggage systems for two reasons.
The first? In December 1988, a Libyan intelligence service agent checked a bag containing an altitude-triggered bomb onto a feeder flight in Malta through to New York. The agent then did not board the plane. As intended, the suitcase was loaded onto Pan Am Flight 103 without its passenger. It blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 286 people. The second reason we now more aggressively bag match is 9/11. After that attack, the luggage loophole needed to be shut for good.
Automated systems for reconciling luggage use the bar codes printed on the luggage tags at check-in and reading devices placed along conveyors on the bags' routes to the aircraft. This provides the flight crew with a list of whose luggage actually makes the flight. They match this list with the gate agents' tally of boarded passengers. The luggage list and the passenger list must agree. Period.
Who knows why Ms. Katherine with-a-K Harton didn't board? The real concern is what her ignorance is costing us. Ripping a full jetliner out of the takeoff queue is a complex undertaking. Like hotels, airports run on the "warm bed" principle of heavy rotation. We'll be lucky to return to our original gate. And after we're finished there, we'll be put back at the end of the queue.
Katherine's bag, however, will be our greatest expense. Although radio-frequency identification tags (RFID) are commonplace on seagoing cargo containers, luggage tags have not yet been outfitted with this technology. If they were, Ms. Harton's bags would beam their special little signals, making them easy to find. As of today, baggage-loading facilities do not track which bags are loaded into which containers. Bar codes only tell us the basics: the bags tagged "Katherine Harton/Berlin" will load onto DL Flight 78.
Ergo, the boys will have to unload all the containers and search them by hand. Ever notice the typeface on your luggage tags? The bar code is big and robust. The face in which your name is printed is very, very small. (Seven-point, if that.) So the boys will also have to study each bag closely. They'll know from the numbers approximately when they loaded which container. If we're lucky, then, they'll find Katherine's bags in the first ten minutes. Or, they could find them in forty five.
Faced with this calculation--thirty minutes to and into the queue already abandoned, fifteen minutes back to the gate, an hour at the gate, another hour in the queue--the airline did the smart thing. They got gate agents to comb the airport for the girl. And a girl she was: early-twenties, blonde, tight jeans, she sank into her hoodie with the kind of post-adolescent mortification that a high school student exhibits when caught drinking by the principal.
Somebody had given her a lecture. She slunk into her seat and didn't take off that hood for the first half hour of our re-entry into the takeoff queue. If I'd polled the aircraft, I believe my fellow passengers would have preferred that Ms. Harton be led off in chains and forced to scrape chewing gum residue off JFK's sidewalks in a Guantanamo-issue orange jumpsuit with "TOO DUMB TO BOARD" stenciled in black on the back. But by finding her and putting her on the aircraft (in other words, by not looking for her bag), we restricted the delay she caused to an hour and a half. If she had been a terrorist insinuating a bomb onto our flight instead of merely a selfish young woman, then great. A counter-terror success, in other words.