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Little Praise for Luggage Screening Plan

Security: The Dec. 31 deadline for all bags to be checked will be met, Mineta says. But experts call the proposal flawed.

April 25, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta unveiled a plan Wednesday to screen all checked airline baggage for explosives by the end of the year, but independent experts said the proposal was flawed.

Mineta said the Transportation Security Administration would deploy 1,100 computerized tomography scanners, which generate three-dimensional images of objects inside closed bags. They will be supplemented with 4,700 trace-detection systems, which can pick up residue left by explosives on the outside of closed bags or amid the contents of open ones.

The 429 U.S. airports that have commercial airline service will get screening systems by Dec. 31, the deadline Congress established in last year's aviation security bill, Mineta said.

While many airports will get both systems, he said, some may have only one. The $1-million CT scanners are more likely to go to larger airports, and the $45,000 trace detectors to smaller ones. Nevertheless, Mineta told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce audience: "We will insist on the same high standards for all airports, large and small."

Independent experts warned that trace detectors are not foolproof and should not be used alone.

"It's not that difficult to clean up an item so trace [detectors] will not find anything," said aviation consultant Douglas Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines. "What a mistake."

Industry officials say the trace-detection system is about 50% effective on a closed bag and 85% effective if the bag is opened. It is unclear whether the government will require that all bags screened with that system be opened. Nationwide, airports handle about 1 billion pieces of luggage a year.

Criticism of the trace detectors was echoed by a technical expert on explosive detection, who asked not to be identified. "They do not detect all the explosives that one could use," the expert said. "It is not going to add very much protection overall."

Transportation Department officials said their own testing has assured them that trace detectors are effective. Before Sept. 11, however, CT scanners were the only technology approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for explosive detection.

Department officials said other security measures--such as ensuring that passengers who check bags actually board their flights--would be used in conjunction with the trace detectors.

A compromise on explosive detection was necessary because Congress set an unrealistically early deadline for deployment, said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee on aviation. There wasn't enough time to build and install sufficient numbers of the more sophisticated CT scanners, he said.

The Dec. 31 deadline has been controversial since Congress passed the aviation security bill in November. Critics said that moving quickly might lead to shortcuts that would weaken the new security system, and Mineta initially said that the deadline could not be met. Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead has urged Congress and the Bush administration to back away from the deadline, but neither party has wanted to be the first to budge.

"Hopefully, this will only be a temporary plan," Mica said. "It is my hope that we can get to the next generation of equipment and technology. I think that trace [detection] will give us the protection that we need in the interim, and then we can change it out later on with better technology."

Mica said it would have been a mistake to opt exclusively for CT scanners, because that technology is also likely to be overtaken by less expensive and more reliable systems.

But Laird, the aviation security consultant, noted that, in the government, temporary solutions have a way of becoming permanent. "My fear is that once they get the trace [detectors] up and in place, they will find it more difficult to come up with the money for other systems."

Because screening bags using trace detectors is more labor-intensive, estimates of the number of screeners needed nationwide have more than doubled, from 30,000 to 65,000. Mineta said that Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which the government has used as a test facility, will be the first to get a full complement of federal screeners, as government employees take over that responsibility from private contractors this summer.

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