Communitys Airport Pilots Explosives Detectors

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Gerald R. Ford Airport is the first U.S. airport that the Transportation Security Administration selected for 100 percent baggage screening by explosives detection systems.

The system’s implementation here will help build a model for implementation at all U.S. airports.

TSA took over security screening operations for the nation’s 429 commercial service airports Feb. 19 and is in the process of hiring and training a workforce of more than 30,000 federal employees to screen passengers, baggage and cargo.

The agency is charged with deploying explosives detection equipment at all airports no later than Dec. 31.

In April, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta announced TSA would deploy 1,100 explosives detection systems (EDS) and 4,700 explosives trace detection (ETD) machines at the nation’s airports by that deadline.

Ford International was one of 15 airports TSA selected to trace the movement of passengers and cargo through security systems over two weeks in February.

“It was a benchmarking exercise — looking for best practices, what’s working and what’s not working,” Aeronautics Director James Koslosky explained. 

Nico Melendez, TSA special assistant for public affairs, said Grand Rapids presented a cross section of what TSA was looking for all across the country. “It’s big enough, but small enough and manageable,” he said.

TSA is using results of the 15-airport study to build a model for security implementation at all U.S. airports.

Ford International was subsequently selected for 100 percent EDS baggage screening, which uses CAT-scan technology.  

The detectors weigh about 9,000 pounds, are the size of minivans and cost about $750,000 each, according to TSA.

To accommodate them, the airport’s screening checkpoints have been undergoing reconfiguration since May 7, and the work should be completed by mid-June.

Six machines are being phased in in the airport’s front hall. The first, at the United/Continental counters, went into use last week.

Two more EDS machines were scheduled to go into service this week at U.S. Air/ATA and Northwest/Skyway airline counters, and the remaining three are scheduled to be in use starting Sunday to cover American/Delta and Delta/Skyway counters.

“This is a pilot project to determine optimum locations and minimize the impact on passenger processing,” Koslosky noted.

“This is a test program. We’re trying to figure out how best to accommodate passengers and their checked baggage in an efficient manner.”

Frequent fliers may see one routine one day and another the next, Koslosky said. He said the airport has been told if something’s not working, a line could be shut down and the procedures changed.

The EDS machines will take up a considerable amount of the passenger space in the airport’s front hall, which could create a squeeze during peak holiday travel times.

That will be part of the learning process, Koslosky said.

“If we do have congestion out there during this testing program we may shut lines down. My hope is that TSA is going to walk away with some lessons and maybe we’ll look at a little different technology to get at 100 percent screening at our size airports and larger. 

“We’re asking for everybody’s cooperation and understanding in what we’re trying to achieve here in Grand Rapids. At this point you will only see this in Grand Rapids. It’s not yet being rolled out at other airports.”

Koslosky said one line of passengers may go to the airline ticket counter first and then take their bags to the EDS machine, and another line might go to the machine first and the ticket counter second.

“Those are the kinds of things we’re going to experiment with in this test program. Nobody will miss a flight, nor will flights be delayed.”

As mandated in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, TSA must deploy federal screeners to all the airports by Nov. 19. 

Koslosky said federal screeners are expected to be at Ford International by July.

TSA also requires that each airport have a security director to oversee screening. A security director is expected to be in place at Ford International sometime this month or next, depending on where TSA is at in its hiring process, Koslosky said.

Uniformed federal personnel will supervise all screening activities, and at least one law enforcement officer will be stationed at each screening location.

Michigan National Guard personnel departed their posts at Ford’s passenger screening checkpoints on May 9, and Kent County Sheriff deputies have taken over law enforcement functions until TSA provides federal law enforcement officers.

That’s anticipated in November.

Besides screening operations, TSA is responsible for performing background checks on airport security personnel, enforcing all security regulations, responding to security threats and serving as primary liaison to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Before formation of TSA last year, the Federal Aviation Administration was responsible for civil aviation security and overseeing the airlines.

The airlines were responsible for passenger and baggage screening, which they typically contracted out to private security firms.

Koslosky underscored that the airport’s role all along has been the physical security of the airfield and facilities — the fences, gates and access control issues that deter access to aircraft. 

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