Crisis Seen in Luggage Screening

Many airports have too few screeners and use slow, labor-intensive bomb detectors that are being overwhelmed by increasing passenger traffic.


The nation's airports face a looming crisis in their ability to screen checked luggage for bombs that will require billions of dollars to avert, a new report ordered by Congress says.

Many airports have too few screeners and use slow, labor-intensive bomb detectors that are being overwhelmed by increasing passenger traffic, the study says.

The report criticizes how bomb detectors were installed in airports after 9/11. Because of a tight deadline, "many if not most of the implementations were suboptimal," it says.

The van-sized machines clog terminals and operate so slowly that flights are sometimes held up or bags don't make it onto their flights, airport officials say. Those problems will worsen unless luggage scanners are replaced at most U.S. airports with faster machines that are part of baggage-conveyor systems.

"It's very urgent," said James Bennett, CEO of the authority that runs Washington's Reagan National and Dulles airports. "It's one of the -- if not the -- most pressing improvement that needs to be made in aviation security."

Jim Crites, operations chief at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, said "there is no more room" in airports for additional luggage scanners, "and yet you have more demand coming on."

The 220-page report was written by officials from airports, airlines, design firms and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in August, before new restrictions for carry-on bags led to a huge increase in checked luggage. That surge "has further stressed the system," Bennett said.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House's aviation subcommittee, questioned whether Congress would approve the proposed $4.8 billion. "Unfortunately, Congress is not ready to face the reality of the problem," Mica said.

Congress ordered a study in late 2004 of how to install faster luggage scanners.

The report suggests spreading costs by selling federal tax credits that would be redeemed over many years, and by making airports pay $700 million. That plan would move up the installation of new machines to 2013 instead of 2024, when they'd be in place without special financing.

Faster, more automated bomb detectors would cut some personnel costs, the report says. They also would improve security by reducing the percentage of bags screened using less-reliable methods to 5% from 25% or higher during busy periods, and by reducing crowds in airport lobbies that are potential targets for terrorists.

High-speed scanners expected to be ready in a year or two would screen bags at 10 times the rate of current machines. False alarms, which now force screeners to search 15% to 25% of checked bags, could be lower, the report says.

The TSA received the report last week after an agency advisory committee unanimously approved it. The TSA will consider whether to endorse the study and seek congressional approval for financing the new machines.

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