Passengers aren't the only ones likely to face delays at airports this season because of heightened security. As of Dec. 31, their baggage will go through rigorous new screening too.
That's the federal deadline for some 450 commercial airports in the United States to scan all checked baggage - more than 700 million pieces a year.
But will the added security make skies safer?
While some industry observers say the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has done all it can, considering funding limits, others worry air travel will be only minimally safer. The most serious weaknesses in air-travel security, they say, are tarmac access, screening passengers for nonmetallic weapons and explosives, and - perhaps of greatest concern - unscreened cargo that travels on commercial flights.
For passengers, the biggest change from the new screening may be delays.
"New security systems add roughly 15 minutes to the whole process" of baggage handling, says Frank Larkin, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Upper Marlboro, Md. "Flight times can be delayed.... It's not uncommon for a jammed belt to throw a wrench in the whole system."
An article in Airport Security Report last month pointed out that the most sophisticated technology - in-line screening installed in hub airports - is far from perfect. Problems range from malfunctioning software and equipment to airports that were not designed to house centralized systems. Boston's Logan International Airport, for instance, spent $200 million to modify its layout, add miles of conveyor belts, and integrate 40 scanning machines into its basement.
"We've had problems [at Logan], but we have pretty well corrected the problems with conveyor belts, baggage jams, computer problems," says Frank Lanza, chief executive of Level 3 Communications (L-3), one of two government contractors supplying baggage-security equipment.
The federal government has spent an estimated $2 billion to $4 billion to get baggage screening into the airports. Even so, "a handful" of mostly larger airports won't meet the deadline because of logistical problems, says a TSA spokeswoman.
Critics say gaps remain in the screening process. "The big problem is cargo - that's an area no one wants to talk about," says Richard Gritta, an airline-industry expert and finance professor at the University of Portland. "Maybe 10 percent of cargo put on commercial planes is screened."
Airlines, which reportedly earn more than $4 billion a year carrying 2.8 million tons of cargo on passenger planes, argue screening it all is prohibitively expensive. Instead, they rely on a "trusted shipper," in which cargo firms are asked to prescreen packages or vouch for their security, says Darrin Kayser, a TSA spokesman. Airports conduct random inspections after that. Mr. Kayser says the TSA has invested $50 million toward research and development for air-cargo security technologies.
For checked baggage, L-3 and the other government contractor, InVision Technologies in Newark, Calif., are working to improve luggage scanning. "We're trying to make them more automatic ... by taking the [human] operator out of the loop," says Sergio Magistri, president of InVision Technologies. "The more we make it automatic ... the more secure the system [because there's less human error] - and the less expensive the operation is."
InVision also hopes to improve the computer's accuracy in detecting weapons and explosives, reducing the need to search passengers' bags by hand. "We're aiming for 1 in a 100 in the next few years," Dr. Magistri says, compared with the 20 in 100 bags that are searched manually today.
One approach InVision is exploring is called X-ray diffraction, a process that analyzes a bag's molecular contents. Though it's not yet deployed in the US, there are 10 machines in Germany and Israel. Magistri hopes to have a few units in American airports by the end of 2004.
Meanwhile, L-3 is honing ideas for cargo screening, including a neutron detector that could pinpoint so-called dirty bombs in packages, says Mr. Lanza.