WEEDING OUT THE BOMBS
JULY 25, 1996
What equipment is in place to prevent explosives from being smuggled onto airliners? What equipment is available to improve detection? Tom Bearden reports..
Listen to this report with RealAudio. [14.4] [28.8]
JIM LEHRER: Now a look at some of the explosive detection equipment referred to by the President; Tom Bearden reports.
July 24, 1996:
TWA President Jeffrey Erickson talks about the families of the TWA disaster victims.
July 19, 1996:
Threats To Freedom.
A panel of experts discuss attempts to balance air travel security with personal freedom.
July 18, 1996:
A panel of experts considers possible scenarios behind the explosion that downed TWA flight 800.
TOM BEARDEN: Americans make about a billion passes a year through airport metal detectors and send their purses and carry-on luggage through X-ray machines. The systems were designed to prevent highjackings, and have been remarkably successful in detecting knives and guns. The search for a way to screen the baggage that goes in the cargo hold has been underway for more than 10 years.
bags quickly enough to prevent massive back-ups at airports, but thoroughly enough to prevent disaster. The first generation machines were far too slow and set off far too many false alarms. They were also very large, very expensive, and presented dicey public relations problems, like the thermal neutron device that bombarded luggage with nuclear radiation. Ten years later, only one machine, the CTX-5000, has been certified by the FAA.
This is one of the machines the President was referring to. A planned year-long operational test program began six months ago. One of the units is scanning bags behind the United Airlines ticket counter in San Francisco. Another is in the bowels of the Atlanta Airport, checking bags bound for Delta flights. The device is essentially a souped-up version of a medical CAT scanner, a sophisticated X-ray machine connected to a powerful computer.
The manufacturer, Invision Technologies, demonstrated the CTX-5000 for us at their Foster City, California plant. This suitcase contains a portable radio with a small amount of plastic explosive inside. It was plastique in a portable radio inside a suitcase that brought down Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
A conveyor moves the bag into the machine, where the rotating X-ray drum electronically slices it into dozens of pictures. If nothing's found, the bag automatically moves on. But if the computer detects an explosive, an alarm goes off and an enhanced image is displayed for the operator to examine. David Pillor is Invisions' senior vice president.
DAVID PILLOR, President, Invision Technologies: This is the outline of a radio. The explosive material is colored red. The detonator is colored green.
TOM BEARDEN: How does the machine know that that is an explosive?
DAVID PILLOR: Well, the computer knows--has determined by examining the CT images that there is material inside that radio that has the same density, the same homogeneity, the same texture of an explosive material, so it's able to automatically distinguish between normal or innocuous items and explosive materials.
TOM BEARDEN: Invision says the machine falsely identifies one or two bags out of every ten has containing bombs but says that hasn't been a problem in actual airport operation.
DAVID PILLOR: The technology has been operating in European airports for going on two years now. There's never been a case of a passenger being inconvenienced. There's never been a case of a flight being delayed, and over a million bags have passed through the system in real time operations.
TOM BEARDEN: Remember, U.S. testing for these American-made products began six months ago. Why is it that European airports have had these devices for two years??
JOHN WOOD, President & CEO, Thermedics, Inc.: The FAA has spent a lot of money on research in this area, an estimated 30 to 35 million dollars a year. I think, in contrast, the Europeans spend very little on research, but they buy equipment.
TOM BEARDEN: John Wood runs Thermedics, Incorporated, which makes another bomb detection product now seeking FAA certification.
JOHN WOOD: The U.S. Government approach has been to continue research in the area until a higher standard is met, some would say the perfect bomb detector. Well, that hasn't been attained yet, and as a result, systems are not mandated for installation in the United States, and we continue to do research.
TOM BEARDEN: Thermedics makes a detector called EGIS. Ninety of them are now in use in forty airports in eleven countries but none at U.S. airports.
JOHN WOOD: The overseas airlines are operating, for instance, our equipment in Germany, Switzerland, the UK, elsewhere in Western Europe. We sold equipment to the Middle East. We're very active in Israel. We have equipment operating in Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, so I've always viewed the irony, if you want to be screened with the latest in U.S. explosives detection equipment, you need to fly out of an overseas airport.
TOM BEARDEN: EGIS works on a different principle than the CTX-5000. It uses a hand-held sampler to sniff for explosives. Chemist David Walsh explains.
DAVID WALSH, Chemist, Thermedics, Inc.: The suspect item, you'll go over the outside of it like so, then sample the glove using the sampling device, the sampler is put in, locked, and the analyze button is pushed. Eighteen seconds goes by. The EGIS is going to take that sample, remove any environmental contaminants from it, and separate the explosives from them, so not only will it tell you if explosives are present, it will also tell you which explosives are present.
TOM BEARDEN: EGIS has fewer false alarms than the CTX-5000 and is much cheaper, but can't process baggage as quickly and is labor-intensive. Critics say the main reason the U.S. lags behind in deploying these new devices is because in America, the airlines pay for security, whereas in Europe, the taxpayers pick up the tab.
MORRIS BUSBY, Former U.S. Ambassador: I think that there is an inherent conflict of interest between the airlines bottom line and security.
TOM BEARDEN: Morris Busby is the former U.S. Ambassador at Large for Counter-Terrorism.
MORRIS BUSBY: As long as the airlines are required to pay for security and they, they treat security in the same manner that they would treat their caterer or their administrative people, then the natural tendency for a businessman is going to be that he wants to cut cost and do it as efficiently and perhaps as cheaply as possible. And I think security deserves a higher place in the priority of things.
TOM BEARDEN: In the past, the airline industry has repeatedly said that being forced to buy expensive, new equipment would put them at a serious competitive disadvantage with overseas carriers, and the new equipment is expensive--a million dollars for each CTX-5000. And it would take five of them to service just the international counters at San Francisco. EGIS detectors go for $165,000 apiece, but more units are required to process the same amount of baggage. Invision's David Pillor says the price tag might sound formidable until you break it down into a per-bag cost.
DAVID PILLOR: At the end of the day, to have the entire airport kitted out and protect every flight is $1 a bag, maybe $2 a passenger on average. Certainly this is a reasonable number considering more than that is collected from each ticket for Customs and Immigration purposes.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you buy the argument that the airlines make if they have to charge this additional ticket tariff that it makes them uncompetitive?
DAVID PILLOR: Well, I certainly would be quite happy to pay $2 extra on my ticket to have everyone else's luggage scanned on flights that I board.
TOM BEARDEN: Other critics point out the FAA has the power to mandate these devices and accuse the agency of dragging its feet because of airline pressure. The FAA declined to talk to us about this subject, but former FAA administrator Jim Busey says such charges are unfair. He ran the agency under President Bush.
JIM BUSEY, Former FAA Administrator: I've been bothered by what I've heard on the press recently following the tragedy there off of Long Island last week when we've got people both from the Congress and from the public, so-called experts, that say not enough has been done, and they're astounded that we haven't brought any new technology along since the Lockerbie incident back in the 1988 time frame, when, in fact, some of those same congressmen and senators were on this aviation commission and said that the thermal neutron device that we had five years ago was inadequate.
TOM BEARDEN: John Wood says if U.S. airlines are reluctant to use the new technologies, law enforcement is not.
JOHN WOOD: Two of our machines are in use by the federal government supporting the investigation of the TWA 800 crash because we had extreme sensitivity not only looking for explosives in luggage before they get on something like an airplane, but also trying to unravel the causes of the crash.
TOM BEARDEN: Wood says he would much rather have his device do what it was designed to do, prevent in-flight explosion, rather than help find out who might have caused one.