U.S. airline security system still has problems

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Posted on Fri, Jul. 19, 2002

U.S. airline security system still has problems

By Seth Borenstein Knight Ridder

WASHINGTON - America's airline security system is in disarray, independent experts and key members of Congress say.

The Transportation Security Administration, created in the aftermath of Sept. 11, faces two deadlines to install key air-security measures by the end of the year that virtually every outside expert says it cannot meet.

The agency has performed so poorly that its boss was fired Thursday.

And it is out of money. It has been borrowing funds from another federal agency that will no longer shell out the stopgap loans.

``TSA has become a monster,'' said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House of Representatives Aviation Subcommittee.

On Tuesday the House Transportation Committee will grill Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta about problems facing the TSA, including:

-- In four months, under a deadline set by law, the government must take over all airport passenger-screening sites, hiring federal workers to check for weapons. So far the TSA has done this in only three out of 425 airports.

``If there are not enough federal screeners on Nov. 19th, it is possible that TSA may have to limit the number of open checkpoints to those it can staff,'' a House memo warns. ``This would result in longer passenger queues.''

-- All checked bags must be screened for explosives by Dec. 31, but the TSA has deployed only 226 of the 5,900 screening systems needed.

Recognizing that the deadline is unlikely to be met, the House Select Committee on Homeland Security voted Friday to extend it by one year. The delay was attached to legislation to create a new Department of Homeland Security, but neither the full House, the Senate nor the Bush administration has approved the date extension yet, and its fate remains uncertain.

-- Commercial cargo in passenger jets is not being checked adequately for bombs.

-- Screeners failed to detect 1 in 4 mock weapons, on average, in 387 recent tests at 32 airports.

``This is particularly troubling, because undercover officers probing the system were instructed not to make dummy weapons difficult for screeners to find,'' the same House memo said.

Lawmakers aren't the only ones who see problems with airline security.

Billie Vincent, a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief, said the current TSA-run system was ``an undisciplined mess.''

``They were overwhelmed, understaffed and wrongly positioned to accomplish everything that was thrown at them,'' said Lou Tyska, chairman of the transportation security committee for the American Society for Industrial Security, a trade group of corporate security chiefs. ``They were doomed to failure.''

But the Bush administration sees improvement.

``It is better than it was the day the Transportation Security Administration started and it will be better tomorrow than it is today,'' said Office of Homeland Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

The biggest issues involve the deadlines of Nov. 19 for screening workers and Dec. 31 for bomb-checking machines. TSA spokesman Greg Warren maintained Friday that his agency will meet those deadlines.

But it's unrealistic to think the government can meet its deadline for installing 1,100 bomb-detection machines and deploying 4,800 swab kits to check for traces of explosives, said Ian Redhead, vice president of the Airports Council International of North America, a Washington-based trade group. There aren't enough machines built, and there isn't enough room in airports to deploy them, he said.

Former FAA security chief Vincent said the TSA was planning to use the swab kits instead of the machines in many places. He said the swab kits were faster to use and effective for open bags, but that they were not proven to work on closed bags, and that's how the government planned to use them.

``All you may be doing is putting bombs on airplanes faster,'' Vincent said.

Finding weapons on passengers is another problem. In some airports, such as Los Angeles International, screeners missed weapons more than 40 percent of the time, according to internal tests.

TSA spokesman Warren said the security-test results were only preliminary and that it was unfair to draw any conclusions from them. Congressional aides say the tests show a need for newer and better metal detectors at airports.

Screening commercial cargo shipped in the belly of a passenger plane is another issue the government isn't addressing completely, experts said. The TSA monitors who ships the cargo, and randomly checks some of its contents. But to ensure safety, more bags should be examined, Vincent said.

The TSA has already run through its $2.4 billion budget and has asked Congress for another $4.4 billion. The House approved the plan Thursday but the Senate has not acted on it yet. The agency has been operating on loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the meantime, but will get no more.

``We're getting close'' to running out of money, Warren said.


-- Martin (Martin@aol.com), July 19, 2002

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