March 26, 2002 — Airlines will miss the government’s deadline to electronically screen all checked baggage so badly that air travelers will likely have to live with spotty alternative security measures for as long as two more years, aviation security experts and lawmakers say.
Sweeping airline security legislation that President Bush signed late last year says the airlines should install explosive detection systems, or EDS’s, in all federally supervised airports by Dec. 31. However, the law sets out no penalties for failing to deploy universal electronic screening, and under one of its subsections, the industry would not be in violation as long as all baggage was screened by “alternative means.”
Soft Target: Airline security after 9/11
Only two companies are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to make the systems, and their historical production capacity has been about 50 machines a month each. Even if the two certified contractors, InVision Technologies Inc. of Newark, Calif., and L-3 Communications Corp. of New York, doubled their production capacity, they would not be able to churn out enough machines by Dec. 31.
Federal officials said a third company, PerkinElmer Detection Systems of Wellesley, Mass., was close to certification, but even if it started production immediately and was able to make up the shortfall, there still would not be enough time to reinforce floors in many of the nation’s busiest airports to accommodate the mammoth scanners, which are roughly the size of a sport-utility vehicle and weigh even more.
The widespread consensus among security experts is that when other factors are considered — among them hiring and training the machines’ operators and reconfiguring traffic patterns in terminals without disrupting air travel too severely — the airlines probably cannot comply before 2004. That was also the projection FAA Administrator Jane Garvey offered in congressional testimony after the terrorist attacks.
In the meantime, the Transportation Department is requiring airlines to cross-match checked baggage against passenger manifests to ensure that a bag hiding a bomb cannot be checked onto an airplane while the bag’s owner walks away. That is the first of the alternative security methods the new law allows.
The method has several serious limitations, however. An MSNBC.com investigation found that it cannot intercept the actual bomb, that it would do nothing to stop a terrorist who was willing to die on the plane and that it did not take into account the 75 million to 90 million passengers who transfer to connecting flights each year. But aviation officials say that for now, it is the best system they have.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on aviation, acknowledged in an interview that “the Congress has set in law some requirements that are very difficult to meet from a practical and technical standpoint.” But he said, “You’ve got to do the best job you can to try to stay one step ahead of some pretty diabolical terrorists who are coming up with more innovative ways to spread their mayhem.”
Politics, antiquated bureaucracy
The FAA’s performance in adopting technologies like universal electronic bag screening was considered so poor that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress stripped the agency of many of its security responsibilities. In its place was established the Transportation Security Administration, a separate agency led by a new deputy secretary reporting directly to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
The TSA is “working hard to meet the Dec. 31 deadline,” Rebecca Trexler, a spokeswoman for the TSA, told MSNBC.com. Although she and other TSA officials were asked several times in different ways, however, no one at the agency said it would in fact meet the deadline for EDS’s, although they said they were confident that they would be in compliance with the law by deploying alternative methods.
Security experts in private industry and in Congress generally agreed that the TSA was not to blame. They said the new agency appeared to be on the right track but had inherited a bureaucratic mess that made its task almost impossible.
For example, critics inside and outside the government said EDS systems could have been prevalent long ago but for the FAA’s accommodation of airlines’ resistance to universal electronic bag screening before Sept. 11.
“Asking the FAA to fix security is like asking John Gotti to fix crime,” said Michael Boyd, a former airline executive who now analyzes the industry, voicing a sentiment shared by the FAA’s top overseer in Congress.
“If anyone is negative on 9/11, it’s the FAA,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the Transportation Committee. “... They are an outdated agency.”
Young said in an interview that the FAA’s slow approval procedures had delayed acquisition of a variety of new technologies. He said navigation systems based on the Global Positioning Satellite array could have been in place as long as four years ago had the FAA not been “dragging its feet.”
Accordingly, he said, the FAA should also be stripped of its authority to approve companies to provide the new bag-screening machines.
“Why do they have to be certified by the FAA?” Young asked, adding that many of his efforts since Sept. 11 had been directed toward “trying to keep the FAA out of it.”
Congressional aviation experts tout EDS’s as the silver bullet to eliminate the threat that bombs and weapons could be sneaked onto airplanes in checked baggage. But private experts and industry analysts warn that the systems are not all they are cracked up to be.
“There’s a limitation for most of the EDS’s, especially the computerized tomography type” like those manufactured by InVision and L-3, said Stephen Luckey, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association’s committee on security.
“They don’t have to look for wires or caps, batteries or anything else in the system,” said Luckey, who also sits on an FAA research, engineering and development panel.
The machines are “fairly slow,” as well, he said.
“They’re trying to get the throughput rate up,” Luckey said in an interview, “but as you increase the throughput rate, you also decrease the effectiveness — you increase the false-positive rate.”
The machines scan for density of specific materials and can have trouble discriminating between substances that have similar compositions. “They can’t distinguish between chocolate and C-4,” a common plastic explosive, said Boyd, the industry analyst. “Also soap.”
Although the machines’ performance has been improving consistently, InVision and L-3 themselves reported false-alarm rates of about 22 percent as recently as last autumn.
That makes it imperative that less ambitious but proven security measures not be abandoned, a prospect that could arise if airlines see them as easy cost-cutting targets once EDS systems finally are in place systemwide, said Arnold Barnett, an MIT management systems professor whom the government has consulted on aviation security before and after Sept. 11.
Barnett agreed that EDS systems “are not perfect” and said he thought the flying public would not let the industry get away with relying solely on the scanners.
“People have adapted and put a great premium on security, and indeed I would think that if suddenly there were a great reduction in security measures ... my guess is the reaction would be sheer consternation,” he said in an interview.
Others said they feared that exponentially growing layers of security could lead to delays in flight departures that would severely test passengers’ patience, especially as time passed and the more vivid memories of Sept. 11 receded.
“The people are quite fickle,” said Young, the House Transportation Committee chairman. But he agreed that such concerns should not be allowed to lessen the pressure on regulators to provide the tightest security possible even after EDS systems are in place.
If people get impatient, he said, “we’ll just run a picture of the World Trade Center. We are going to be secure.”
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