Senators pressed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Wednesday to screen all cargo carried on passenger airplanes, amid signs that Congress may mandate stricter standards unless the administration acts quickly.
Soon after taking the reins on Capitol Hill, Democrats announced that implementing the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission would be a top priority. One of those recommendations consisted of tightening security screening of air cargo on passenger planes.
The House earlier this month passed legislation (HR 1) incorporating many Sept. 11 commission provisions, including a requirement that all air cargo on passenger planes be screened. But that mandate has been less well-received in the Senate, where each member has more power.
At a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing Wednesday on aviation security, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., urged TSA chief Kip Hawley to come up with technological innovations that would help secure air cargo, such as blast-proof cargo containers.
"Congress is going to be pushing on this subject: You need to get ahead of the curve to come up with some improvements there," Lott said. "You need to move more aggressively."
Hawley said the TSA is moving as quickly as possible given cost and privacy considerations inherent in some new technologies, such as "backscatter" scanners that are both expensive and physically revealing.
Hawley appealed to lawmakers not to mandate screening of all air cargo on passenger planes, urging instead a risk-based approach to deciding which cargo should be screened and which should not.
"For a very small incremental benefit of security it would take away resources that we could more productively apply elsewhere," Hawley said.
John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, also pressed Hawley on improving security for general aviation flights, including possibly requiring security screening for passengers.
"At least something which measures the standards of passenger screening, pilot identification [for general aviation] is very much a part of our future, and if it is not then we're not taking the lessons of Sept. 11 seriously," Rockefeller said.
Currently, general aviation -- which includes private planes as well as business and charter jets -- does not require passenger security screening.
Hawley said general aviation security is being strengthened incrementally, in consultation with the general aviation community.
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