HOW SAFE IS SAFE?
SEPTEMBER 9, 1996
Although the cause of the TWA Flight 800 crash earlier this summer has not been conclusively determined, the event did prompt a new round of questions about overall air safety. President Clinton announced new measures based on the preliminary work of a federally appointed commission. Tom Bearden has a backgrounder.
TOM BEARDEN: The President established the commission chaired by Vice President Gore 45 days ago to investigate ways to improve aviation security and safety. The members gathered in the Oval Office this morning to present their report. It calls for a series of security improvements, many of which critics have been advocating for more than a decade. The President said he would implement some of the recommendations immediately.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I will direct that all airport and airline employees with access to secure areas be given criminal background checks and FBI fingerprint checks. I will direct the FAA to begin full passenger bag match for domestic flights at selected airports.
MR. BEARDEN: Criminal background checks of airline employees were recommended in 1990, an earlier presidential commission which investigated the downing of Pan Am 103 by a terrorist bomb. The process of matching bags with passengers is routine on international flights. If a passenger checks in but doesn't actually board the plane, his bags are removed. This will be the first time the procedure will be applied extensively to domestic flights. The commission also recommended the federal government spend $160 million to purchase and install new bomb detection machines for checked baggage.
The only device currently certified by the Federal Aviation Administration is the CTX-5000, manufactured by Invision Technologies in Foster City, California. It's basically a modified medial CAT scanner, a sophisticated X-ray machine coupled with a computer programmed to recognize the visual signature of explosive devices. A conveyor belt moves the bag into the machine while a rotating X-ray drum electronically slices it into dozens of pictures. If the computer detects an explosive, an alarm goes off and the machine displays an enhanced image for the operators to examine. David Pillor is Invision's senior vice president.
DAVID PILLOR, Senior Vice President, Invision: This is the outline of the radio. The explosive material is colored red. The detonator is colored green.
MR. 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.
MR. BEARDEN: The machines are in widespread use in many overseas airports but not in the U.S.. Many airlines and airports had balked at the $1 million per copy price tag and the commission's recommendation to have the taxpayers pick up the initial tab will break that logjam. A year-long operational test of the machines at the San Francisco and Atlanta Airports began six months ago. Today's presidential announcement calls on Congress for money to begin installing the machines immediately, even the testing has not been completed. The President also announced that military canine teams would be deployed at several airports next week. Bomb-sniffing dogs can be used to screen checked baggage, air cargo, and the U.S. Mail, but there is no technology today to electronically scan the large cargo shipments that move on passenger aircraft. The Pan Am 103 Commission called air cargo "a huge gap in the security umbrella" and the 1994 General Accounting Office report said that unscreened mail was "a serious security vulnerability." The FAA has recently implemented more stringent requirements for air cargo, requiring identification of the shippers to be kept on file until the cargo is delivered.
SPOKESPERSON: Has anyone asked you to carry anything on this aircraft today?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.
MR. BEARDEN: The commission also called for a computer profiling system to track passengers and identify those with suspicious travel patterns. For example, a person traveling alone on a one-way ticket purchased with cash would come under additional scrutiny. The President also directed the FAA to stage meetings of security personnel at all of the nation's 450 commercial airports to study improvements, and FBI-style counter terrorism training will be implemented at high risk airports.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Shortly, I will submit to Congress a budget request for more than $1 billion to expand our FBI anti-terrorism forces and to put the most sophisticated bomb detection machines in America's airports. As a result of these steps, not only will the American people feel safer, they will be safer. MR. BEARDEN: The ultimate price tag for increased security has not been established. The Gore Commission will continue to meet for the next year to consider additional proposals.