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TOM BEARDEN: Coming soon to an airport near you, equipment designed to look for bombs in every one of the more than one billion pieces of luggage that go through the U.S. commercial aviation system every year.
The Aviation Security Act, passed last November, requires that the new Transportation Security Administration equip each of the nation’s 429 airports with some sort of explosive-detection system by December 31. But the people who actually run the airports say the deadline is completely unrealistic.
Ben de Costa runs the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield.
BENJAMIN R. DeCOSTA: Many of us believe that we ought to do it right the first time, and that the deadline should be shifted to give the T.S.A. A fair chance to do what we know they can do.
TOM BEARDEN: De Costa was one of 2,400 people who attended the annual meeting of the American Association of Airport Executives in Dallas, in May. Many of those attending said there just isn’t enough time to install a system that will actually work. Jeff Fegan is CEO at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
JEFFREY P. FEGAN, CEO, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport: Many airports have such extreme challenges that they see no way in the world that they can meet January 1.
TOM BEARDEN: It’s a complicated problem. Initially, the Transportation Security Administration, created after 9/11 to federalize aviation security, wanted to use about 2,000 machines like this one, called EDS, or explosive detection systems. They are mini-van sized x-ray devices similar to hospital cat- scanners. They’re heavy, up to 17,000 pounds, and expensive, $1 million apiece. They’re also fast and highly automated.
But the manufacturers said they can only make about half of the machines the TSA wanted by the deadline. So the agency decided to order just 1,100 EDS machines and supplement them with about 5,000 much smaller devices called ETD’s, or explosive trace detectors. An operator uses a cloth to swab the bags, and the machine can detect small amounts of explosive compounds. ETD’s are smaller and cheaper, about $40,000 per copy, but they’re also much slower and, some say, less effective. The manufacturers say they can do the job if used correctly, but the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t officially certified them as being equivalent to EDS machines. And both devices present airports with serious challenges to accommodate them.
JEFFREY P. FEGAN: The plan is not very firm right now, that many of these teams are now just getting to the airports to talk about what might have to happen from a physical standpoint. And you know, in the absence of knowing, you know, precisely, it does raise some questions about whether or not you have enough resources, enough manpower, enough equipment, and enough in the budget to accommodate all the airports’ needs.
TOM BEARDEN: DFW’s Fegan says ideally, they put the EDS machines into the conveyor belt systems behind the scenes. But that would mean reconstructing the whole area, and there isn’t enough time for that. So they may have to go in the ticketing area of DFW’s narrow, horseshoe-shaped terminals, where the trace detectors are also supposed to go. DFW has also been exploring unusual options, like putting EDS machines into the train stations that serve the airport’s people-moving system. Wherever they go, the floors may have to be reinforced to hold their weight. At Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, the director of security, Mark Mancuso, says the space problems will impact passengers.
MARK MANCUSO, Deputy Director, Houston Airport System: If we put the trace-detection equipment, which are the small boxes, inside the terminal, we’ve estimated that it’s probably going to take one piece of equipment for each two airline-ticketing positions and the associated tables and personnel to insure cross contamination doesn’t occur. So you have two four-foot tables, the footprint of the equipment itself, the operators, and some working room within which they need to function. By the time we get finished, we may not have a place for the passengers to go.
TOM BEARDEN: At Seattle-Tacoma Airport, the managing director, Gina Maria Lindsay, predicts a nightmare.
GINA MARIA LINDSEY, Managing Director, Seattle-Tacoma Airport: Picture your own house, your own home, and all of a sudden, if you had to put in 30 washing machines in your house and still have your family function, that doesn’t work. Most people don’t have a house that’s that big. Even if it that be done by year end, I’m afraid there’s a huge impact on passenger processing.
TOM BEARDEN: Out the door?
GINA MARIA LINDSEY: Out the door, definitely. Or lined up across the bridges that go into the parking garage.
TOM BEARDEN: In the Seattle rain?
GINA MARIA LINDSEY: In the Seattle rain. It’s lovely.
TOM BEARDEN: With problems like that, it’s not surprising that airport executives turned out in large numbers to hear John Magaw, the head of the TSA, speak at their convention.
JOHN MAGAW, Transportation Security Administration: I understand your frustration as we move forward.
TOM BEARDEN: Magaw says the deadline can be met, and points to the experience of Salt Lake City, which was able to get a full bag-screening system up and running, with both types of equipment in time for the Olympics.
JOHN MAGAW: Well, there is a concern in airports, Dulles is another one. If you think of the lobby at Dulles Airport, or the one at DFW, those are very restricted lobbies, and how can we work that and get those in? Is there a build-on that can take place to the side or that lobby or the front of that lobby? Can we do it in an adjoining area and then being them into a secure area? All those have to be looked at, and we are going to be looking at them with each of the airport managers. That’s their home. They know best what can be done there with the idea and the plan in mind.
TOM BEARDEN: Representative James Oberstar is the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. He says he’s not inclined to change the deadline, giving past delays in implementing aviation security improvements.
REP. JAMES OBERSTAR, (D) Minnesota: I will not be tolerant of excuses now. We need relief today from these deadlines. Keep working at it. Put your best effort forward and then do even more because we’re not going to tolerate this kind of loss of life again.
TOM BEARDEN: Complicating all this is the fact that the TSA doesn’t yet know what combination of equipment will do the job.
SPOKESMAN: I’m going to close this back up for just a moment. I’m going to do my analysis.
TOM BEARDEN: They’re testing a trace-only system at the Norfolk Airport, which may become the model for smaller airports that don’t have the traffic volume to justify the million-dollar-per- copy EDS machines. Other airports are testing 100 percent EDS, and still others, a combination of the two. The results will help the agency decide what mix of equipment each airport will ultimately use. Until the decision is made, construction plans cannot proceed. The tests will also yield other critical information, such as how long, on average, it will take to check a bag. That depends on whether the user decides to swab just the exterior, or the interior as well. There are no public figures, but privately the agency has been telling members of Congress for optimum results it might have to open up as many as half of all bags, increasing delays and raising privacy concerns.
At a congressional hearing, Senator Patty Murray, who heads the Senate Aviation subcommittee that votes on the Department Of Transportation’s budget, raised those concerns with Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY, (D) Washington: I don’t believe we can expect passengers to accept the notion that their bags are going to be opened in the middle of the terminal for all other passengers to see while they’re waiting in line to get their boarding pass.
NORMAN MINETA: The open-bag environment does not mean a dumping of the bag, because all you have to do is take that swab and put it around…
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: But the bag will be open?
NORMAN MINETA: It will be open. Now, it will not… they can go to a secure area behind a privacy panel.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Are we providing for those secure areas at airports?
NORMAN MINETA: We are. Or we will take them to a private room, if that’s what they prefer.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Are those private rooms available now in airports? Will we have that provided for at all airports by the end of the year, when these trace detection systems will be in place?
NORMAN MINETA: I would hope there will be some kind of facility.
TOM BEARDEN: Many of the same legislators who worry about privacy and deadlines have been shocked at how much meeting these needs might cost. Congress is appropriating some money for the changes, but airports contend it’s not enough. The TSA also wants more money. The agency says it needs about 67,000 employees, twice its original estimate. The agency ran into opposition recently, when it returned to Capitol Hill to seek another $4.4 billion for the rest of this year. Harold Rogers chairs the House Subcommittee that voted on the agency’s budget.
REP. HAROLD ROGERS, (R) Kentucky: They have requested 3,400 shoe and bin runners. When you take your shoes off to check for weapons in your shoes or your feet, these would be the people that would carry your shoes back to you, assumedly. They’re requesting 1,430 ticket checkers. That’s what airlines are supposed to do, in my opinion. They’re asking for 4,200 hand-wanders, which I think the newer magnetometers would obviate the need for — most of them. They’re asking for what’s called queue coordinators, some 1,400 queue coordinators. These are the people that would be sure the lines are moving in a nice way. They’re asking for 1,400 customer-service representatives to patrol the lines to make sure people are happy. Well, I thought the airlines were in that business.
TOM BEARDEN: Magaw says his agency’s mission is bigger than originally envisioned when the law was passed, and more complex as well.
JOHN MAGAW: In the law, Congress said, “you now must do baggage.” Well, there wasn’t anybody doing baggage before, so that adds almost a double amount. So that’s where you very quickly get to the 51,000 to 53,000 right there. Now then, you’ve got people at each of the 429 airports, and a staff there. They’re saying, “you need a law enforcement person behind each one of the checkpoints.” So that adds to the number. The Federal Air Marshall program is vastly increased. That adds to the number. So very quickly that number rises.
TOM BEARDEN: Many airport operators fear that whatever system goes into place by December will have to be heavily revised later as the kinks are worked out, at a further cost of millions of dollars.
BENJAMIN R. DeCOSTA, Manager, Hartsfield Atlanta Airport: What we ought to do is all get behind them and give them a chance to do it right, and move the damn deadline.
TOM BEARDEN: Recently, 39 airport executives, whose airports handle the majority of passenger traffic in the U.S., asked Secretary Mineta to seek a new deadline from Congress. He told them, “The law is the law,” and he has no intention of trying to changing the deadline. The airports and the TSA have less then seven months to work out a solution.