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Cost of Fortifying Airports May Top $6 Billion in 2002

Security: If Congress doesn't approve more money, other safety priorities could suffer.

April 08, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The cost of bolstering airport security is mounting rapidly, and this year alone could run more than triple what has been budgeted, congressional and aviation industry officials say.

The unexpectedly steep costs facing the new Transportation Security Administration, created after Sept. 11, stem from greater manpower needs, more expensive bomb detection equipment at airports and other factors. They have prompted the Bush administration to ask Congress for an additional $4.4 billion for the fledgling agency, which would bring its funding in the current fiscal year to more than $6 billion.

It could go higher. In a San Francisco speech last month, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said the TSA will be bigger than the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Border Patrol combined. The agency may have to hire more than 50,000 employees, he said, a 25% increase over previous estimates of about 40,000 workers.

Congressional aides said some scenarios call for as many as 70,000 TSA screeners, special agents and air marshals. Whatever the final number, it illustrates the high price that government and many private companies will have to pay as an open society seeks to transform itself into a bulwark against terrorism.

Unless Congress appropriates billions more dollars for security, concern is growing that funding may be diverted from two other priorities: improving aviation safety and reducing runway congestion.

"It is going to be enormously expensive to do what is needed in the area of security, so staying focused on safety and capacity issues is going to be more important than ever before," Federal Aviation Administration head Jane Garvey said in a recent speech.

Part of the problem is that Congress didn't guarantee enough cash flow when it created the TSA in November and gave it a little more than a year to erase the reputation of U.S. airports as an easy target.

Lawmakers imposed an airline ticket fee on passengers of $2.50 per flight segment, with a maximum of $10 per round trip. That is expected to generate only about $1 billion a year. An additional $700 million to $1 billion a year would come from airline contributions, required by the legislation for two years. The rules for assessing those levies are still being drafted.

"There are a number of people studying this in the federal government, and they are having a hard time admitting to themselves what it's going to cost," said Charles Barclay, president of the American Assn. of Airport Executives. "If we take all that money away from runway and taxiway improvements, [passengers] will find that we have a security system, but we can't handle the traffic."

Paying for aviation security will be a priority when Congress returns from recess on Tuesday. The House Appropriations Committee has scheduled a hearing on April 17. Airports are only one component in a transportation security equation that includes ports, rail, transit, trucks and pipelines.

Security sticker shock is spreading on Capitol Hill and in the Bush administration, said officials involved with transportation issues.

Lawmakers want to follow through on their commitment to stronger security, a Senate staffer said. But some projects may go at a slower pace as funding requests get more detailed scrutiny from Capitol Hill and the administration.

For example, the Senate staffer said the TSA originally had asked the White House to request $6 billion in supplemental funding from Congress. The White House pared the request to $4 billion, with the result that additional upgrades to cargo and airport perimeter security may be delayed.

TSA spokesman Jonathan Thompson said cost estimates have been particularly difficult because the agency is being built from scratch, and key issues such as what technology to use for detecting explosives in baggage have not been fully worked out.

The TSA plans to use a mix of bomb detection systems. There will be state-of-the art machines that cost $1 million apiece and use CT technology similar to medical scanners. These require fewer operators. Other devices, such as the equipment being used to check for shoe bombs, are much less expensive but require more workers.

"We haven't figured out what the proper mix is going to be," Thompson said. "We fully expect to have a detailed accounting [for Congress] of where we are going and where we have been."

Escalating security costs at the federal level have direct implications for local authorities, who own and operate airports such as Los Angeles International, and for the airline industry.

Barclay, of the airports association, said local governments are concerned that Washington may not make good on promises to defray their security costs. For example, he said the TSA is estimating a cost of only $175,000 per unit to install CT scanners for baggage. Airports reckon many of these huge machines will cost $1 million or more.

"There is just a huge variance in perception between what people in the federal government are estimating versus what our members are seeing," Barclay said.

The airline industry says it is also bearing significantly higher costs for security. Some industry officials fear that the government will raise the new security fee on tickets, making it harder for carriers to raise their own prices. While passengers are flying again, airlines have had to offer discounts to entice them, and profitability continues to elude the industry.

"The [security] cost is huge, and we are getting very concerned," said Dick Doubrava, a security expert with the Air Transport Assn. "Ticket prices go up, but we're not getting the added revenue."

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