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Unaccompanied bags still on aircraft 38 years after Air India bombings

When a bomb in an unaccompanied bag exploded, 329 people died when Air India Flight 182 blew up off the coast of Ireland in 1985.
Transport Canada says the prescribed X-ray equipment, screening processes and passenger-baggage match processes are contained in sensitive security measures and cannot be shared publicly.

Thirty-eight years after 331 people died after luggage bombs left Vancouver on flights to Japan and the U.K., Transport Canada cannot disclose what safety precautions are in place to protect passengers from it happening again.

However, B.C. residents say their bags continue to go on aircraft even though they are not onboard.

Removing checked bags not matched to boarded passengers was a major concern of a commission of inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombings that killed 329 airline passengers over the Atlantic Ocean as well as two baggage handlers in Tokyo.

Two bags left Vancouver heading east and west. The matching passengers did not board the flights.

“Unaccompanied baggage should be refused unless searched, sealed and held for 24 hours minimum,” commissioner John Major, a retired Supreme Court of Canada justice, said in his report to the federal government in the wake of the terrorist bombings.

Three of four major Canadian airlines won’t say whether or not they remove bags not matched to passengers.

One B.C. man who lost family members on Air India Flight 182 off the Irish coast said the situation is an issue.

Major Sidhu lost a sister, a niece and a nephew on the flight.

Told of the unaccompanied bags left on aircraft, he said, “that’s wrong.”

“The same happened on Air India,” he said. “It’s concerning for me.”

He said the bombing continues to be investigated.

Recent cases

The baggage-removal situation came to light after a B.C. man expressed concerns about bombings when his daughter and her boyfriend missed an Edmonton-Vancouver flight and the bags were not removed.

“If somebody had a malicious intent, they could put a bomb onboard,” Karl Fellenius told Glacier Media.

The Sidney, B.C., man said the pair were on an Aug. 13 Flair flight from Edmonton to Victoria but missed the plane despite having checked in.

Fellenius said they expected the bags would have been removed in Edmonton, where they could have retrieved them. But when the couple went to get their bags, they were told the luggage had proceeded to Victoria.

Vancouver Island’s Alyssa Yell and partner Paul Suter have similar concerns after a $10,000 dream trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia was thwarted by Air Canada delays in September.

They were told their bags would be removed so they could reschedule; however, when they got to the baggage area, they were told the flight would not be delayed for a removal.

Suter said it’s a violation of airline rules to allow unaccompanied bags on an aircraft.

“They went to Montreal without us and then they travelled internationally without us.”

“They could have pulled them off,” he said. “They refused to.”

He said it was his understanding such rules became even tighter after the 2001 9/11 terror attacks.

And, despite the barcode tagging on the bags, the couple said they couldn’t even find out where the bags were. It was an employee of the outfitter in Mongolia who tracked them down.

Air India

Part of the reason airlines around the world require checked baggage to be unloaded if the passenger fails to board the airplane comes from tragedy that unfolded in June 1985.

The passengers who checked the bags were not on the flights. Two men had bought the tickets in downtown Vancouver for the flights. The bags were checked in but no matching passenger boarded.

Inderjit Singh Reyat was convicted of the bombmaker and later also jailed for perjury. He’s the only person to have served jail time in the case. Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik were acquitted in the alleged conspiracy after an 18-month-long trial in Vancouver. 

It was suspected the bombings were the work of the now-banned Babbar Khalsa terrorist organization that advocates for a Sikh state of Khalistan in India's Punjab region.

The group’s leader, Talwinder Singh Parmar, lived in Surrey but was gunned down by police in India in 1992. Malik was gunned down in Surrey in 2022.

Repeated questions

Glacier Media repeatedly asked Transport Canada what federal government rules and regulations are in place to protect the flying public.

However, Transport Canada spokesperson Sau Sau Liu continued to reiterate that requirements around matching bags to passengers cannot be shared publicly.  
“However, these requirements are subject to conditions and exceptions in certain circumstances. For security reasons, we cannot disclose further details regarding these conditions and exceptions,” Liu said. “ In addition, please note that all baggage is screened by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority using state-of-the-art equipment before it is loaded on board an aircraft.”

Airline survey

Glacier Media reached out to Air Canada, Westjet, Porter Airlines and Air Transat as the country’s major air carriers to find out about their policies on baggage removal and what assurances they provide passengers.

They were divided on discussing specifics.

Porter spokesman Brad Cicero said that airline follows regulations in place and suggested reaching out to Transport Canada for “the most complete information about the requirements.”

Air Transat removes unmatched bags, spokesman Bernard Cote said.

“Air Transat does have a baggage matching policy,” Cote said. “The safety and well-being of our passengers is our priority.”

An Air Canada statement said it's company policy to comply with all Transport Canada requirements.

“We do not discuss our security measures,” the statement said.

Members of Parliament

Glacier Media reached out to the two Parliamentary transport critics: Conservative Mark Strahl, MP for B.C.’s Chilliwack-Hope riding and Taylor Bachrach, MP for B.C.’s Skeena-Bulkley Valley riding.

Strahl said he would look into the situation and get back to Glacier Media. He has not done so.

His father, Chuck Strahl, was minister of transport, infrastructure and communities at the time of Major’s report.

The government response bearing Strahl senior’s signature, among others, said, “Although the government cannot eliminate entirely the possibility of another terrorist attack, it is committed to learning from the past to ensure a safer, more secure future.”

The response promised making “targeted investments and improvements in aviation security over the short, medium and longer term, always focusing on areas of highest risk.”

Shroud of secrecy

Liu said the time of the tragic events of Air India Flight 182, Transport Canada’s aviation security regulatory framework required Canadian and foreign air carriers to establish and implement security procedures for the surveillance and screening of persons, personal belongings, baggage, goods and cargo. 

“However, the regulations did not prescribe the nature of procedures or systems that were required,” Liu said.

Liu said checked baggage for Air India Flight 182 was intended to be screened by an X-ray; however, partway through the screening process, the X-ray equipment became unserviceable.

“At that time, approximately 50-75 per cent of the bags had been screened. A decision was made to screen the remaining bags using hand-held explosive vapour and trace detector equipment which could have been ineffective in detecting explosives. It is unknown if the suitcase that contained the explosives was screened via the X-ray equipment or the hand-held equipment.”

And, Liu said, since that time, Transport Canada’s aviation security regulatory framework has been enhanced and prescribes the type of X-ray screening equipment and the processes to be followed while screening checked baggage departing Canadian airports. 

“All checked bags are screened using sophisticated X-ray screening equipment. It also includes specific requirements for business continuity plans to ensure each checked baggage is screened to the highest security standard should X-ray equipment become unserviceable for a brief period,” Liu said. “The current prescribed requirements align with international standards and are harmonized with our closest international allies.”

“The prescribed X-ray equipment, screening processes and passenger-baggage match processes are contained in sensitive security measures and cannot be shared publicly,” added Liu.

Pressed on whether or not bags would be removed if not matched to passengers, Liu did not respond.

Glacier Media noted to Liu that baggage screening failed in the Air India case, a failure noted in John Major’s commissioner of inquiry into the bombings.

“Transport Canada was aware of the potential value of passenger baggage reconciliation and considered it an effective security measure for high-threat situations,” Major said in his report. “Confirming that all checked bags were matched with travelling passengers required additional time before a flight could depart and caused inconvenience to passengers.”

Major said properly implemented passenger-baggage reconciliation “might well have prevented the bombing of Air India Flight 182.”

But, he said, security is highly visible in publicly facing sides of airports but a shroud of secrecy envelops what goes on behind the scenes.