"We are looking to these technologies to fill the biggest security hole in America, which is that 90 percent of all checked luggage on an airplane is not screened for explosives," Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Org., told United Press International.
Inslee has spearheaded legislation that would require 100 percent of all baggage to undergo such checks.
In a caucus room at the Cannon House Office building, a handful of lawmakers pressed palms and fielded technical sales pitches from scanner vendors wanting to be part of that effort.
"We commercialized our (scanner) two years ago but until Sept 11 the airlines and government buyers told us they didn't need all our capabilities," said Steven Botello, marketing and sales director for Ancore Corporation of Santa Clara, Calif.
Ancore and other companies such as Billerica, Mass-based American Science and Engineering or AS&E and L3 Communications in Clearwater, Fla. all produce variations of scanning devices that detect people, drugs, explosives, hazardous material and other contraband.
While many powerful scanning technologies are used in federal buildings and at U.S. border points for example, the airline industry has in the past proven reluctant to use the most sophisticated of them because of high costs.
"The airlines unfortunately have historically resisted anything that involves spending a buck," Inslee told UPI. "We need the airline industry's help but that is a Balkanized system that makes it difficult to do things in a seamless way."
William Baukus, a technical marketing director for AS&E, said his company's scanners, which uses a technique he says is more effective that scanners currently employed in airports, are used to check people and parcels coming into Congressional buildings.
"But we currently don't sell to the airline market because in some cases our technology is about 100 percent more expensive than what's being sold to airports. Our system runs about $60,000 and the units being sold to airports are around $30,000."
Public scrutiny of security lapses at the nation's airports has congealed around two key issues, technology and personnel.
No airport security laws have been passed thanks to pitched ideological battles between House Democrats, who favor federalizing airport screeners, and House Republicans, who resist expanding the federal workforce to such a degree and would instead require the federal government to contract with private companies.
"It's almost two months later and we still don't have an airline security bill (because of differences over federalizing luggage screeners)," Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, told United Press International. "The problem is that airport screeners have a low wage jobs with no benefits. The turnover rate for those jobs is 126 percent. The average screener stays on the jobs only 9 months. That's why I support federalizing those workers. As for the technology, look around, it's here and it's expensive. But it's a small price to pay."
Inslee, whose constituents include Boeing, is pressing the FAA and the Justice Department to expedite procurement of new scanning scanning systems.
"They should hold open contests to decide which of these technologies are best and they should do so under a deadline," he said.
Inslee said it is reasonable to expect that within two years airlines should be able to scan all luggage.