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TIGHTER PURSE FOR AIR SAFETY



Published: Wed, April 24, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Los Angeles Times: After the shocking ease with which the Sept. 11 hijackers sailed through airport security, President Bush and Congress moved swiftly to upgrade air safety. In November they created the Transportation Security Administration and set a Dec. 31, 2002, deadline for screening all checked baggage. But the can-do mood turned sour in Congress last week when transportation officials declared that the deadline was "crushing" and said their budget estimate for this year had soared from $2.4 billion a few months ago to $6.8 billion, including funds to increase security employees to 72,000 from 32,000.

The agency has certainly made safety improvements since it took over air security in February. According to Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael P. Jackson, the notoriously sloppy airport security firm Argenbright will be almost completely replaced this week. But inefficiencies and clunky management plague the agency. Kenneth M. Mead, the Transportation Department's inspector general, acknowledged to Congress that the agency wasn't able to explain how it had spent the $2.4 billion that Congress already appropriated. It has hired only two clerks to handle $250 million a month in bills and is unable to verify the accuracy of its accounts.

Baggage-checking system

The biggest financial and security problem that the agency faces, however, is deciding what kind of baggage-checking system to construct. Ideally, it would install the most sophisticated machines, which cost $1 million each and use a process called computed tomography, much like CT scanners in hospitals, to check for explosives. But not enough of these truck-size machines can be manufactured in time to meet the Dec. 31 deadline, and installing them involves extensive remodeling of airports, including strengthening floors. The machine's readers need elaborate training or the error rate soars. The inspector general's office has found that CT machines already in place sometimes sit idle because employees have ambiguous instructions. The other option is to use some CT machines together with so-called Trace machines that cost $45,000 each. The Trace machine can sniff out tiny particles of explosives but doesn't scan the inside of a bag. It requires hand searches if an alert sounds.

Transportation officials believe that the most sophisticated system would ultimately be less costly because it would required fewer people to operate. But the agency has not devised a coherent plan for where the equipment should go first or how long the project would take. A combination of the two makes more sense in the short term. And the safety agency should put more focus on a low-tech project, matching every single checked bag with a person who boards a plane.

Sustained plan

Starting up a new security agency in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was a huge undertaking, and no one expected it to be without glitches. Now, however, the agency must shift from a throw-money-at-the-problem approach to a more sustained plan.




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