The government's chief watchdog for airline security warned a congressional panel Wednesday that new baggage screening measures fall short of their objective and said he had "serious doubts" that airports will be able to meet some of the deadlines for other security improvements ordered by lawmakers.
Although airports have until Dec. 31 to begin screening all checked baggage for explosives, Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead told the House subcommittee that he doubted airports would have enough bomb detectors and trained personnel by then. He estimated that the nation could fall 500 machines short of the estimated 2,200 explosives detection devices needed.
In the interim the much-publicized baggage security measures that airlines adopted last week are supposed to at least assure that terrorists cannot use unaccompanied luggage to place a bomb aboard an aircraft.
But a Transportation Department decision to require merely that airlines check to see if a passenger has made the first leg of a journey leaves connecting flights vulnerable, Mead said. A terrorist could time a bomb checked in a suitcase for a later segment and abandon it at a connecting airport.
Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the top-ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, called the gap "the Achilles' heel of aviation security."
Mead said the airline industry and the Transportation Department are in for some "heavy lifting" if it is to meet a timetable for security improvements set by sweeping legislation that Congress passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Mead indicated that precious time is being wasted because no contracts have been awarded to buy more explosives-detection equipment since the legislation passed.
He said it will cost at least $6 billion to buy new bomb detectors and staff the equipment in the current fiscal year, but current revenue projections fall $4 billion short.
Mead also painted a gloomy picture on other fronts. He said the hiring of new screeners is not expected to begin until the spring, creating a hard-to-meet timetable to hire 40,000 new federal employees by Dec. 31.
Mead also said airports have not been brought into the process to figure out how to remodel passenger terminals and baggage-sorting rooms to accommodate several dozen or more additional explosives-detection machines -- each the size of a pickup truck and weighing up to 5 tons.
"Nobody can read Mr. Mead's testimony without wondering whether there is an unspoken problem here: namely, whether any of this is going to happen," said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's representative in Congress.
John Magaw, undersecretary of transportation for security, defended his department's progress in meeting the legislation's deadlines.
"The new security system will be robust," Magaw said. "It is better today than it was yesterday. It will be better tomorrow, and it will be better each day in the future."
Magaw said the department had delayed awarding contracts for explosives-detection equipment with the two companies that currently produce machinery as it sought to explore ways of gaining commitments for higher production levels.
The department is negotiating with the companies to license their technology so that other manufacturers can pick up the slack, Magaw said. And it also is expediting a review to possibly certify another explosives detection system produced by a different company, he said.
He added that he expects consultations with airports over the logistical difficulties in installing the systems will pick up in the coming months, once federal security directors are hired for individual airports.
Magaw also said the department's decision not to require that airlines check to see that passengers had boarded connecting flights was a way of avoiding delays. He said airline officials had warned him of "enormous delays" if they were required to unload bags from aircraft when passengers missed a connecting flight.
However, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Arnold Barnett disputed the assertion. Barnett, a consultant who did a study on bag matches for the Federal Aviation Administration, said a two-week test conducted in 1997 showed only one in seven flights would be delayed and then only by an average of seven minutes.
Despite his reservations about leaving out the connecting flights, Mead said the new baggage security system otherwise appears to be operating well.
Mead said inspectors who examined 78 flights at 12 airports on the first day of the new measures found that airlines were complying with the new rules in all cases. He said the inspectors found "noticeable delays" on only five flights but was uncertain whether they were related to the new rules.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times