Today's news of a plot to blow up nine planes over the Atlantic Ocean is a reminder of potential threats to commercial aviation, a reality that the Transportation Security Administration must confront every day.
Prior to 9/11, only three percent of all passengers bags were screened. Today, all bags are checked, and that is no small task. Each day, U.S. airports process over 2 million travelers and 2 million pieces of luggage. Despite the improvements made since the attacks in 2001, there are still significant weaknesses, many of which could be remedied with technology upgrades in the airports and cargo holds.
A couple of years ago there was a big push for biometric scanning at airport security checks. Biometrics is a fancy term for identifying people based on physical traits--retinal eye scanning, body imaging, and fingerprinting are examples.
These devices are incredibly helpful in tracking and monitoring known or suspected terrorists. If a potential bomber were already on a watch list or in an intelligence database, biometric scanners could prevent them from boarding a plane by identifying them based on those physical traits.
Of course, most bombers aren't kind enough to register with the CIA before carrying out jihad.
That said, biometrics have been a great tool for controlling the borders. For example, we recently reported the story of eleven missing Egyptian college students who were bound for Montana State University.
As visitors to the U.S., they would have had to scan their fingerprints at the airport before passing through customs, providing an instant ID and a way to track them once they are in the United States. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that the numbers of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. through our international airports has decreased, with biometrics serving as a deterrent.
That technology is good, but not enough. It certainly does nothing to protect commercial flights from potential danger in the cargo area.
While the TSA finally made good on a promise to screen all checked passenger bags, very little has been done about cargo carried on commercial flights.
While it is difficult to get clear numbers on just how many cargo crates get inspected, in our ports the figure is about 5 percent and on airplanes it is not much higher.
The reason--the boxes are too big to fit into the standard X-Ray machines.
There is a very quick fix to that issue. Devices like the Z-Backscatter can take an X-Ray image of objects as large as a semi-truck. It kind of looks like a toll booth. No object is too big, and the ground crew on the tarmac could simply drive the cargo through the scanner.
As for the London plot, traditional magnetometers would not likely catch liquid in a plastic container concealed on a person's body. This is where the biometric body scanner would come in handy, but civil liberties advocates balked at the suggestion.
There are other, less invasive detection devices that would be able to pick up more than just metal. For example, a Millimeter Wave device, which reads the waves of energy from your body to identify any object on it that doesn't belong there--like a small explosive you have taped to your thigh.
The mechanism kind of looks like a magnetometer, but it sends the imaging to a handheld device that gives the security guard a glimpse of any possible abnormalities or contraband on your body.
These devices would certainly make us a bit safer in the sky. Trouble is, they cost big bucks.
The TSA's operating budget hovers around $6 billion. Spending on the screening machines for checked baggage was about half that figure in 2004 alone.
It all comes down to a matter of how much money the already troubled U.S. airlines will spend on our safety, and how much more the customers are willing to pay for a safer flight.