U.S. may not have enough machines to screen all checked bags by Dec. 31, inspector general says

Wednesday, February 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Transportation Department is unlikely to be able to build and install enough airport explosive-detection machines to meet a Dec. 31 deadline set by Congress, the agency's watchdog said Wednesday.

As a result, the new Transportation Security Administration should develop alternatives to meet the year-end deadline for inspecting all checked bags for explosives, Inspector General Kenneth Mead said in testimony prepared for the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee.

The problem is twofold, Mead said: Companies can't build enough machines in time and airports can't be renovated quickly enough to allow the machines to be added to the baggage handling system.

As a result, Mead said, the new agency should plan to fill the gap with handheld wands that can detect explosives and with some machines placed in lobbies.

Two companies now produce explosive detection machines, with a third on the way. Mead said a department consultant estimated that almost 3,000 machines would be needed at the nation's 453 commercial airports to meet the deadline, but fewer than 2,300 machines could be produced in time.

In addition, airport baggage areas would have to be rebuilt to accommodate the new machines, Mead said.

Only 1,800 machines would be needed by Dec. 31 if some luggage was screened by equipment located in airport lobbies or by handheld wands. The wands now are used to check shoes and carryon luggage for explosives.

Mead also said that Congress would have to spend more money on airline security than budgeted. The new agency has a budget of $2 billion to $2.4 billion this year, but costs for the machines, employees to run them and airport renovations to accommodate them could reach $6.6 billion. ``Clearly, a supplemental appropriation is needed,'' Mead said.

President Bush's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 provides $4.3 billion in spending for the new security agency. But John Magaw, the undersecretary for transportation security, said the allocation was just a preliminary number and more money will be needed.