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RESPONSE TO TERROR | TECHNOLOGY

FAA's Bumpy High-Tech Ride

Security: The agency, under intense pressure to foil terrorists, is plagued by systems that have failed to deliver or are never implemented.

November 07, 2001|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration put out a call for new technology to thwart hijackers and bombers.

Since then, the agency has received more than 23,000 ideas--from body scanners that can see through clothing, to facial-recognition systems, to equipment that would let a pilot on the ground take over a plane's controls from a hijacker.

But the quest for the Holy Grail of anti-terrorism technology is not a new one for the agency, and it follows a mixed record of getting machines and systems to solve problems. Indeed, for an agency that is focused on a sophisticated piece of machinery--the airplane--the FAA has in many ways been less than adept at using technology.

While the security industry is churning out one hot new gadget after another, the FAA has struggled mightily over the years with gold-plated systems that disappoint their users, new devices that never get out of the prototype stage and technology debates that fail to result in a coordinated plan for meeting the threat.

Now, with the public and Congress breathing down the FAA's neck to design the perfect terrorist-proof air transportation system, some are wondering whether the agency is equipped for the job.

"It's not the National Institutes of Health," said Richard Lanza, an MIT research scientist who has reviewed bomb-detection technology for the agency. "They have some good, competent scientists, but they're just running around pushing paper."

Consider:

* While the FAA concentrated on developing sophisticated machines to scan luggage for bombs in the 1990s, it overlooked the lowly metal detector. FAA metal-detector standards are geared to finding guns, not knives, despite improved technology.

In a case last weekend that illustrates that weakness, a man arrested in Chicago after he tried to board a flight with a mini-arsenal in his bag also had two small knives in his pocket that failed to set off a metal detector.

"Even though they may be able to detect certain knives of a certain size, it is not in line with the new threat, which involves box cutters and small blades," said Scott Dennison, director of CEIA USA, a major manufacturer of airport metal detectors. "Compared with other countries, the FAA is behind."

* After the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988, the FAA contributed more than $2 million in taxpayer money to develop, test and approve blast-resistant containers for checked bags in the cargo hold. But the agency never required airlines to begin using them, and no domestic carriers do. Overseas, the Israeli airline, El Al, does.

* The interaction between FAA-approved security technology and the people who operate it is a chronic problem.

At Los Angeles International and other major airports, advanced imaging machines use CT technology to scan checked bags for explosives. The systems are effective in detecting explosives, but James O'Bryon, a Defense Department expert commissioned by the FAA to provide an independent evaluation, said they are plagued by an "unreasonably high false-alarm rate." Consequently, baggage screeners become frustrated and inattentive, and airlines are reluctant to use the machines at full capacity because they don't want to delay flights.

* Some FAA technology innovations have been rolled out without the required training for their users.

The agency invested heavily in a computer program that randomly projects false images of guns and bombs on the screens at airport security checkpoints. The idea was to break the monotony of the screeners' jobs and provide them with constant training. The program has been installed in 697 scanning machines, but the Department of Transportation inspector general said it is being used only in about half of them because of a lack of basic training procedures.

A 1994 study by the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, concluded that the FAA often lacked an overall vision for technology, did a poor job of linking different systems together and didn't pay enough attention to the practical concerns of technology users.

Observers say the situation hasn't improved. "Something needs to be done to pull it all together," O'Bryon testified at a recent congressional hearing. He recommended the creation of a science board within the agency to make a strategic assessment of security technology.

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said the agency regularly consults with outside experts on the latest security technology. In a speech last month to the National Press Club, Garvey said the FAA wants to identify five to 10 promising technologies and quickly get them into airports.

"There are some wonderful technologies out there," she said, citing a device that scans the iris of the eye and could be used to identify airport and airline workers. "The real challenge now is to get into production, get it moving as quickly as we can."

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