US looks to improve air-travel screening

A report finds continuing problems with the new federal security system at airport checkpoints.

Security at America's airports could change dramatically, yet again.

After spending billions of dollars and training almost 50,000 new federal security screeners to help safeguard against another Sept. 11, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) will again allow private companies to scan your carry-ons and wand your shoes.

That's a result of the original legislation that created the new federal security system. Republican lawmakers wanted to be sure that private companies, if they proved they could perform as well, would eventually be able to compete for the government's business. It even set up a pilot program at five airports to test the idea.

A newly released study found little difference between federal and private screeners. The report wasn't encouraging: In the words of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, both groups performed "equally poorly."

While the actual report is classified, lawmakers who have seen it say that almost as many explosives and dangerous devices get by screeners now as before Sept. 11.

"To find out that we've spent billions of dollars and still have a system that's lacking is of great concern," says Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee.

Mr. Mica has called for an immediate meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Mica wants to be sure the TSA puts an emphasis on improving the technology used by the screeners, as well as reforming a bureaucracy he likens to "a centralized Soviet process."

Aviation security experts agree that better explosive detection technology is needed, and most are not surprised at screeners' poor performance in detecting dangerous objects. To them, however, the problem is not the people who do the job or even who issues their paycheck, but the way the job itself is designed.

The system was set up to detect firearms - once the hijacker's tool of choice. Now, the greater threats are plastic explosives and other difficult to detect items, like hazardous chemicals.

"The No. 1 requirement still is a competent explosives detection system, and we don't have it," says Aaron Gellman, an aviation expert at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Over the past two years, Congress has authorized more than $125 million for research and development of better screening technology. But the TSA diverted much of it to other priorities, including more than $60 million to increase the screeners' salaries. This year, more than $150 million is in the budget for R&D, and Mica says he's "determined" that it go toward improving explosives detection.

But some aviation experts contend the TSA should also step back and reassess the way the screening job is actually done.

"The problem is that you're constantly processing either passengers or suitcases and you almost never find anything, and so your expectation is that there's not going to be anything dangerous," says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University in Bloomington. "So the question is: How do you stay sharp and focused in a job that has so much repetition and in which you find things so seldom?"

A model could be the found on the assembly line, Professor Oster says. US businesses have spent billions of dollars on industrial quality-control techniques, and that's where he thinks the TSA should look too. For instance, it could "plant" more dangerous items so screeners would be more likely to expect to find something. It could also set up a reward system to give employees an incentive to find things.

"If you're finding things from time to time, it's easier to stay sharp," says Oster.

Despite the concerns raised about the screeners' performance in the recent Inspector General's report, the airlines and many aviation experts agree that the current federal workforce is far more professional and effective than the private ones that ran the system prior to Sept. 11.

Indeed, the TSA contends that its own inspectors, who regularly test the system, have found a 70 percent increase in the number of items detected. "We've made dramatic improvements in airport security," says Ann Davis, a TSA spokesperson. "While our screeners are the most visible layer to the traveling public, we recognize that no single layer of security offers a 100 percent guarantee, and so we've implemented a number of other layers to support the screeners' efforts."

The other layers include increased profiling of passengers, steel-reinforced cockpit doors, and a dramatic expansion of the Federal Air Marshal program.

But the airlines and some security experts would also like to see the TSA implement a "registered" system for frequent fliers. That way it could focus more sharply on potential threats. Others would also like it to give private companies more freedom to experiment, believing that could improve overall performance.

Still, most agree that air travel is much safer. "The system is better than it was," says Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University, noting the different layers of security. "But it will never be foolproof."

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