Analysis:Better baggage security difficult

By ALEX CUKAN, United Press International  |  Jan. 15, 2002 at 10:56 AM
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Meeting the federal deadline on Jan. 18 to have airline baggage screened in some way will be difficult and meeting the end-of-the-year deadline of having every single checked bag screened by explosive detection systems will be next to impossible, according to aviation security experts.

"Manufacturing and installing EDS in every airport by the end year is an ambitious goal, the House (of Representatives) had 2004 in its bill but in conference it was changed to 2002," David Schaffer, counsel for the House aviation subcommittee, told United Press International.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act signed into law on Nov. 19, 2001, requires that by Jan. 18, all checked baggage must be screened by either a mechanical or electronic explosive detection system, a bomb-sniffing dog, a manual search or matching bags to passengers. By the end of the year, 100 percent of all checked baggage will have to go through an EDS.

Just as the Pentagon has been accused of "always fighting the last war," airline and airport security is accused of fighting the last airline terrorist attack. Before Sept. 11, that was Pam Am 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 because of a suitcase bomb.

According to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, formed to study matters involving aviation safety and security both domestically and internationally after the crash of TWA 800 in 1996: "Today's aviation security is based in part on the defenses erected in the 1970s against hijackers, based on the commission's recommendations following Pan Am 103.

"The federal government could have enacted matching bags to passengers and required the EDS 18 months ago but less than 3 percent of U.S. airports have the machines," Glenn Johnson, of Pittsburgh and head of the group, Victims of Pan Am 103, told UPI. "The goal of the FAA was to target 5 to 10 percent of luggage to go through the bomb-detecting machines. The feeling was that the terrorist threat would come from other countries and those countries had bomb-detecting machines so they weren't needed here."

"Getting the ... machines in this country was not a high priority."

Having enough machines for an EDS will be difficult because the FAA certifies only two types of machines and the two companies that manufacture them cannot fulfill the demand by the end of the year.

"The new agency, the Transportation Security Administration ... could add other types of machines already used in Europe and other countries to screen the baggage under the law -- making more machines available," Schaffer said. "However, the ones certified by the FAA detect all explosives."

Also unresolved is how and where the machines will be installed in the airports because the machines give off alarms and the bags have to be opened by the passenger to be inspected manually. Many of the machines are currently located near ticket counters but their size and weight may make that impossible.

"The machines are large and weigh several tons and the floors will have to be supported to hold them up, but Congress felt it should be done as soon as possible," Schaffer said. "The law requires a $2.50 surcharge for a one-way airline ticket and $5 for a round-tip ticket but the full cost for implementing the bill hasn't been determined."

Estimates for purchasing and installing the EDS range from $4 to $8 billion and the surcharge is expected to collect about $1 billion for the current fiscal year. In the interim, almost 100 bomb-sniffing dogs have been added to the 180 dogs currently at about 50 airports. While dogs do a good job in detecting explosives, they can't do a lot because they tire, an airline security source said.

Since the terrorist attack on Pam Am 103, the FAA and the security industry have been developing the explosive-detecting technology. The cost of buying and manning the machines was the responsibility of the airlines but other funds were also supposed to be available. After the crash of TWA flight 800 -- believed at first to have been caused by a suitcase bomb -- installing EDS increased. Currently, there are 161 of the large EDS machines at the 50 largest airports. However, there are 450 airports in the country with scheduled air service, according to the FAA.

Funding has always been a problem. One of the members of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, Victoria Cummock, said in a dissenting letter to the commission's recommendations that: since the bombing of Pan Am 103 there have been numerous but unsuccessful attempts at "aviation security enhancements." But without an adequate and consistent funding mechanism in place to implement recommendations, legislation or regulations, she said, the obsolete security status-quo has prevailed.

"The 1990 Aviation Security Improvement Act authorized funds to be appropriated from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund," Cummock said. "In seven years, no security funds were made available due to budget constraints in the trust fund."

With the passage of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in November, screening checked baggage as well as passengers and carryon luggage has become a function of the federal government and no longer an airline responsibility.

"Now that the federal government is paying, the sky's the limit for funding airline and airport security because if there's another tragedy no one will fly," Murray Levine, former vice president of Southern Florida for Wackenhut Security, told UPI. "But it will take more than money. The federal agencies have to work together and allow access to criminal data bases."

Part of the problem with the EDS is that the machines are slow and it will cause longer check-in times at airports. With 54 million Americans flying in 2000, even a small delay could add to the time of a flight.

"I have flown more since Sept. 11 than I have in my entire life but for the most part I don't check in luggage because of the time I would have to spend in line," Dave Debo, a syndicated television producer who moved to Washington, D.C., from Buffalo, N.Y., in September, told UPI. "Matching bags to passengers is a good idea, but only if they do intelligence on the passengers. We all saw that suicide bombers aren't deterred from doing things just because they will die. The bottom line for me is that they should screen the heck out of everything."

According to Johnson, the trouble is that the FAA takes 3 to 7 years to implement something and then it's time to do it over again and "the terrorists have moved to another level and we are always playing catch up."

"While EDS would have prevented the bomb on Pam Am 103, EDS would not have made a difference on Sept. 11," Johnson said. Baggage matching, said other experts, might have prevented one hijacker from boarding.

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