Airport Baggage Screening Could Get Upgrade

The nation's major airports would be beneficiaries of one of the biggest aviation security upgrades since 9/11 -- as much as $7 billion for state-of-the-art baggage screening -- under legislation recently approved by the House and Senate.

Key to the new system are bomb-detection machines built onto conveyor belts that can screen luggage 10 times faster than current systems that scan luggage piece by piece. The older machines are being strained by the 1.5 million bags checked each day at U.S. airports.

Louis Miller, executive director of Tampa International Airport, called the funding "extremely important."

"We can go a long way in a hurry with that kind of money," he said.

The biggest hurdle for the new system may come from President Bush, who has threatened to veto bills containing the money. Bush opposes some bills because they would allow Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners to unionize. He opposes other bills because they also contain troop-withdrawal timetables for Iraq.

Congress plans to work on the bills in coming weeks.

Even with a veto, airport officials say it's significant that both houses of Congress favor vastly increasing federal funding for new luggage-screening systems. The funding increases could be approved as part of other legislation.

Airport groups are urging lawmakers to maintain support. New bomb detectors are "an important enhancement to aviation security," said Deborah McElroy, a lobbyist for Airports Council International.

A report last year ordered by Congress urged billions for new bomb detectors to replace machines that clog terminals and can operate so slowly that flights are held up or bags don't make it onto the flights.

The new system is called "in-line" screening. Bomb detectors are built onto conveyor belts that carry luggage from check-in sites to airplanes. Luggage glides through the detectors assembly-line-fashion, monitored by screeners and untouched unless an alarm sounds.

In-line systems require less personnel than "stand-alone" machines used in most major airports, Congress' Government Accountability Office said. For stand-alone machines, someone must load each bag into the machine, take it out after scanning, and put it on the baggage conveyor.

In-line machines improve security by reducing the number of bags screened using less-reliable methods such as hand searches and dogs, the congressional report said.

The TSA has spent $1.6 billion on new luggage scanners in the past four years, the report said. If some large airports don't get modernized scanners, they will need additional machines in their terminals and extra screeners, it added.

Several airports have paid for all or part of in-line systems. Tampa paid $124 million for a new system in 2004, which opened up 25% of the terminal space that had been filled by stand-alone machines, said Miller, the airport director.

Miller celebrated the system last summer when luggage scanners nationwide were strained after passengers were barred from carrying liquids on airplanes and began checking more bags. In Tampa, the additional luggage "didn't slow us down one iota," Miller said.

TSA chief Kip Hawley told a Capitol Hill hearing in February that the administration's proposed 2008 budget has money for 10 airports to add in-line systems. TSA's plans to upgrade baggage-screening systems nationwide by 2024 could be accelerated by the $7 billion in bills that have passed the House or Senate.

The congressional report did not recommend a massive federal outlay. It suggested that airports pay 25% of the new machines' costs, while the federal government would pay 75% over years through tax credits.