Air Security Experts Hope to Close Gaps Before It's Too Late

Aviation-security experts say all the reactions focus too much on past incidents and not on what innovative attack might come next.

Douglas Laird, an aviation consultant and former security director for Northwest Airlines, said such technology is imperative. "It doesn't take much to cause enough of an explosion to create a hole large enough in the plane that the plane blows itself up because of the pressure difference," he said.

Security consultant Larry Johnson of BERG Associates, a former CIA and State Department official, said Congress has not put enough money into developing new technology for screening people and bags.

"They have not made it a priority. There has not been the equivalent of a Manhattan Project," Johnson said. "It's considered so unlikely, they think they can get away with doing nothing."

It's not cheap. Johnson estimated that developing a passenger-screening machine that can detect explosives would cost $3 billion.

Meanwhile, TSA spokesman Christopher White said the agency does have ways of detecting explosives on individuals, including behavioral training. "We have learned over the past five years that a flexible, unpredictable approach to aviation security is the best approach," White said.

Mica, former chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, said he has set aside millions for research and development in past budgets only to see it diverted to other uses. Several years ago Mica proposed increasing ticket taxes to quickly buy the best equipment for screening checked bags, but airlines and airports opposed the idea.

The problem with checked bags is a shortage of the best explosive-detection machines. Congress hasn't spent enough to place those in all airports, so most airports use trace-detection technology, Laird said.

Trace-detection machines - many equipped with wands that pick up on explosive residue - cannot always find liquid explosives in checked luggage if someone packages the explosives correctly.

"A dog can play with it and not know it's an explosive," it's so well-disguised, Laird said.

Mica has pushed for conveyor-belt "in-line" explosive-detection machines that are much more accurate. Classified and other spot checks of the trace-detection system show it fails to find explosives, he said. "If the results were revealed to the public, they would demand immediate action."

The Transportation Security Administration, which handles screening, has a plan to put the in-line systems into the 250 airports with the most baggage. But under current funding levels of $22.4 billion during 20 years, it would take until 2024 to get them all installed. Mica said Orlando is looking for funding for a $120 million project to upgrade to the in-line bag screening. Airports in Tampa and Jacksonville have switched to the better technology already, he said.

Several pieces of legislation propose screening all cargo that goes onto passenger planes. One of those bills would increase the percentage of cargo screened to 35 percent by Sept. 30 and to 100 percent two years later, which TSA has said is not possible.

In addition to the current random cargo screening of a small portion of shipments, TSA has a system to check the companies that handle the cargo and focus on higher-risk shipments.

"It's almost comical you make such a big deal about what a passenger has in their take-on baggage, yet we're not making a big deal of cargo," said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which has campuses in Florida as well as Arizona.

But Laird, a former Secret Service agent, doesn't think terrorists would use cargo for an attack. Cargo sometimes gets rerouted onto trucks, so it's not predictable for terrorists.

But Johnson said cargo ought to be left off passenger planes until a better screening system is developed.

The Orlando arrests have spurred cries for screening all workers with access to secure areas of the airport. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., pushed the idea in legislation that will come before the Homeland Security Committee on April 24. Her bill would set up pilot programs to screen all workers with access to secure areas at five large airports.

But Bloom, who spent 20 years working for military and civilian government intelligence and security agencies, said screening all workers is not the answer.

"The more you pay to screen everybody, the less you have" for other important security measures, Bloom said.

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