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Security experts want pre-boarding questions changed. USA TODAY: 7/31/00

By Gary Stoller - USA TODAY: 7/31/00

The two pre-boarding questions that airlines are required to ask domestic passengers are flawed, security experts say.

Former Federal Aviation Administration security director Billie Vincent says that he urged the FAA more than a year ago to delete the words ''unknown to you'' from the question ''Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry an item on this flight?''

Vincent, who initiated the questioning process for international passengers in 1996, says past terrorist incidents demonstrate that unwitting passengers have tried to board flights carrying bombs given to them by someone they knew.

In October 1986, a young Irishwoman, Anne Murphy, was duped by her Jordanian boyfriend, Nezar Hindawi, into carrying a bag with 3 pounds of plastic explosives when boarding an El Al Israel flight at London's Heathrow Airport, British law enforcement officials say.

El Al personnel detected the explosives before Murphy, five months pregnant with Hindawi's child and en route to Israel to marry him, boarded the jet.

Three months before the incident, a Texas man, Albert Lee Thielman, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for placing a bomb in his wife's luggage on an Austin-Dallas American Airlines flight. The bomb exploded after the plane landed, and no one was hurt.

According to Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, Cathal ''Irish'' Flynn, the FAA's associate administrator for civil aviation security, said last year that nearly all the bombs given to passengers to carry on an aircraft ''are given by people that passengers think they know very well.'' An FAA spokeswoman says that the FAA has formed a working group composed of airline officials that is studying the wording of security questions.

Charlie LeBlanc, of Houston-based Air Security International, which provides security for corporate travelers, agrees with Vincent. ''The question needs to be changed,'' he says. ''I believe the question is currently worded that way because the airlines don't want to slow down the boarding process and search everyone's bag.''

Dick Doubrava, security director for the Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines, says the FAA makes the final decision about the wording of a question. Security experts also criticize the other baggage-security question: ''Have any of the items you are traveling with been out of your immediate control since the time you packed them?''

Vincent and LeBlanc say it's a multipart question that fails to simply ask who packed the bag. The question also doesn't take into account, Vincent says, a bag that might be under a passenger's control, yet handled by someone else.

Domestic travelers should be asked more than two questions, the experts say.

On flights abroad, the FAA says, it doesn't tell the airlines what to ask. It requires carriers to determine five things about a passenger's bag, but it won't disclose them. Vincent and LeBlanc believe that domestic passengers are asked only two questions to help airlines speed the boarding process.

Doubrava says airlines have never asked the FAA to keep the number of questions to a minimum. ''There has been no effort by the industry to reduce the amount of questions,'' he says.

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