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Airport Security May Take More Time
GRAND RAPIDS — When the new federal Transportation Security Administration takes over responsibility for airport screening Feb. 19, its task will be to develop and implement new security equipment at the nation’s 450 commercial service airports — and do it all in the span of a year.
First off, the agency must build from scratch a workforce of some 28,000 federal screeners for the job.
The two-month-old aviation and transportation security law that created the agency requires 100 percent checked baggage screening by Jan. 18 using any approved means or technology.
The law also requires that a system be in place at each airport by Dec. 31 this year to screen all checked luggage for explosives.
That means the new agency must purchase and place an estimated 1,000 additional bomb-detecting machines. Only about 160 are currently operating nationwide.
Congressman Vern Ehlers believes the nation’s airports won’t have any problem meeting requirements for above-ground screening of passengers and baggage. But screening all checked luggage for explosives will be more difficult.
“There’s a shortage of bomb-detecting equipment and, secondly, the equipment is not very good even though it costs $1 million apiece,” he explained.
“The biggest problem is if you set the equipment to detect explosives with high certainty, you’re going to have 30 to 40 percent false positives. It’s very hard to detect explosives with any reasonable equipment.
“At the same time, aside from the current suicide bombers, we have not had very many people who have tried to blow up an airplane.”
Many airport metal detectors and X-ray machines, designed and deployed in the 1970s to prevent hijackings, are still being used to screen passengers and carry on bags. The old models aren’t capable of detecting plastic explosives.
The FAA has said it will add 90 more bomb-sniffing dogs to its 180 canine team to work at 25 of the nation’s airports and the agency also is helping to develop new screening technology at its technical center in Atlantic City, N.J. The new law earmarks $50 million for development.
“We’ve been working on this a long time,” Ehlers said. “There are ways to do it, but they’re extremely expensive.”
Who is going to pay for all the necessary security improvements?
According to the Department of Transportation, beginning Feb. 1 airline passengers will help defray some of the cost of technology enhancements with a $2.50 fee on each flight, up to $5 for a one-way trip with a plane change.
“Is it going to come out of the $2.50 fee, is it going to come out of the airports or is it going to come out of the airlines? That’s what we’re looking at,” Ehlers said.