A Washington meeting to discuss the proposed transatlantic link-up of British Airways and American Airlines turned into a grilling of US airline chiefs over security following the September 11 terror attacks.
US senators criticised airline executives for not doing enough to improve flying safety and challenged the industry to immediately do more.
The security issue overshadowed the original purpose of the meeting - a review of the proposed BA-American Airlines deal, which other airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, say will hurt competition at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Senator Herb Kohl, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s anti-trust sub-committee, faulted airlines for not ensuring that a person who checked luggage actually got on the flight - already the practice in Europe.
At the same time, he noted, checked bags were not routinely screened for explosives.
‘‘On a given day, a group of saboteurs could load up 12 different airplanes across the country with explosives, go home, and we would have a disaster,’’ said Kohl, a Democrat.
Donald Carty, president and CEO of American Airlines, said matching luggage against passenger lists would not have prevented the September 11 suicide terrorist attack.
‘‘If someone’s willing to die, it doesn’t matter if they’re on the airplane or not,’’ he said.
He also said that US air travel was not set up to handle a bag-match system. The extra time required would ultimately mean fewer flights and more layoffs, Carty said.
‘‘If you are sitting here telling the American public that we’re not going to provide that service, that life-and-death service to American customers, you are taking a huge risk with your industry,’’ said Kohl, adding airlines could institute matching requirements next week.
Other airline executives agreed it was not that easy.
Northwest Airlines CEO Richard Anderson said European airlines were much smaller and handled fewer bags than their US counterparts.
‘‘In major airports in the United States, we will have 50 to 60 arrivals within an hour,’’ Anderson said. ‘‘The airplane sits on the ground for a relatively short period of time and the bags are transferred tail to tail.’’
He said it was ‘‘practically impossible’’ to quickly install a system to match checked baggage with those on the flight.
‘‘I’m not sure it’s acceptable to the American people for you to say, ‘Well, they can do it in Europe because there just aren’t as many people they’re dealing with’,’’ countered the sub-committee’s top Republican, Mike DeWine of Ohio.
‘‘That is not an acceptable answer. ... The answer from the American public is going to be, ‘Figure it out, guys’.’’
Airline executives pointed out that they had taken several steps, such as securing cockpit doors, adding air marshals and beefing up screenings.