Aviation experts say new equipment is needed to wage battle against terrorism
Wednesday, January 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ At airports, the war on terrorism is being fought with 30-year-old weapons.
Metal detectors and X-ray machines used to screen passengers and carryon luggage date from the 1970s, when they were deployed to prevent hijackings.
They can't detect plastic explosives, such as those allegedly hidden in the shoes of a man aboard a Paris-to-Miami flight on Dec. 22. A passenger, Richard C. Reid, was arrested after American Airlines attendants allegedly saw him try to touch a lighted match to his sneakers.
``Most equipment that is deployed is a generation old,'' said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. ``You need highly sophisticated equipment that will detect explosive materials.''
Even the current metal detectors could be replaced with more modern equipment, former FAA security chief Billie Vincent said.
``Given the level of threat, we do not want to grandfather anything,'' Vincent said.
Developing and deploying such equipment will be the job of the new Transportation Security Administration, which is to take control of airline security by Feb. 19.
But President Bush's nominee to head the agency, John Magaw, is still awaiting confirmation by the Senate.
Mica has asked President Bush to use an interim process known as recess appointment to get Magaw in the job while the Senate mulls his confirmation.
``The Richard Reid case is yet another sign that we need to bring immediate focus to our new transportation security agency,'' Mica said. ``The traveling public needs to know that someone is in charge and taking action now.''
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Paul Takemoto said the new agency is looking at new technology to help screen passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration is helping to develop such equipment at its technical center in Atlantic City, N.J.
Airline passengers will help pay for those improvements. The new airline security bill charges them $2.50 for each flight, up to $5 for a one-way trip that involves changing planes. The Transportation Department said the fees would begin Feb. 1 and would raise around $900 million this year.
Capt. Steve Luckey, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's national security committee, said he was concerned that equipment at airports doesn't screen passengers for explosives.
``The technology just isn't there to keep up with the demand,'' Luckey said. ``We're working toward that in the future.''
One low-tech solution is on the way; FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency plans to hire another 90 bomb-sniffing dogs to be deployed at 25 airports. There now are 180 dogs at 39 airports.
Former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo said the FAA concentrated on singling out some passengers for extensive searches rather than developing equipment to screen everyone for explosives.
``They really thought they had the problem solved with their profiling,'' said Schiavo, now a lawyer representing victims of airline accidents. ``They really did not place too much effort in the equipment at all.''
Equipment at many airports can screen checked baggage for explosives. The new aviation security law requires a system in place at each airport to screen all checked bags by explosive detection machines by Dec. 31, 2002. Beginning Jan. 18, 2002, all checked bags must be inspected for explosives by machine, hand, bomb-sniffing dog, or ensuring that the luggage is not loaded on an airplane unless the passenger boards.
Mica said the new law also includes $50 million to develop new equipment, and asked the Transportation Department to tell him in January how it plans to spend the money.
``Your security system is only as strong as its weakest link,'' Mica said. ``It is important that we have technology and equipment that will detect not only checked baggage but explosives that may be concealed on the person.''