False Security
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False Security

Airport security bill provides costly feel-good security, unrealistic deadlines

Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta recently leveled with the public, acknowledging that it will be impossible to meet Congress’ enacted requirement that within 60 days all checked baggage be inspected. But, faced with a storm of outrage in Congress, Mineta reversed himself the next day. “We will meet the obligations we have under the law,” a spokesman said.

When I was a child and told my parents I wanted something they could not afford to buy me, my mother replied, “So want!” When Congress attempts to legislate things that are not possible, it’s the job of experts, like Mineta, to set them straight. Unfortunately, that’s not how things work in Washington. So we will see a procession of unworkable mandates met more in appearance than in reality.

The airport-security bill that President Bush signed just before Thanksgiving sets forth three unrealistic deadlines. First, it requires all checked baggage be checked for explosives within 60 days. Second, the bill orders all checked baggage to be X-rayed by CT-scan-type machines within 14 months. And third, it calls for 28,000 passenger screeners to be replaced by qualified federal employees within one year.

None of these mandates can be met in the way that Congress intended.

The 60-day bag-checking requirement for explosives allows the use of X-ray machines, dogs, hand-search or bag-matching. Only 140 of the needed 2,000 high-tech X-ray machines are now in service. There are nowhere near enough bomb-sniffing dogs available, either.

And with current screeners leaving their jobs due to their contracts being phased out, there’s no way to add enough screeners to hand-search all bags. That leaves matching checked bags to on-board passengers as the only remaining option. And that means if a connecting passenger fails to board his flight at the last minute, the cargo hold must be emptied in order to remove his bag.

If you think airport delays are bad now, just wait until airlines start trying to implement that policy.

Requiring all luggage to be X-rayed by million-dollar CT-scan machines by the end of 2002 is also very ambitious. It will be nearly impossible for the two FAA-certified machine producers to ramp-up production of these hand-built machines.

If they are built, many airports do not have the space to install the bulky machines. San Francisco International Airport alone would need 35 of these machines. Airports across the country are going to need large-scale architectural changes to house this equipment and the structural changes could take years.

And what about creating, from scratch, a federal workforce of 28,000 screeners in just one year? That’s a workforce as large as the State Department’s, and larger than the entire Federal Aviation Administration. What’s especially troubling is that nobody has really thought about how to handle the transition period. The existing security firms are being forced out, but the new federal workforce does not yet exist, and will only gradually recruit, hire and train its people.

So where do we go from here? After some kind of “let’s-pretend solution” is implemented for the 60-day screening mandate, Congress should revisit the aviation security issue and produce a “technical corrections” bill.

To address the new federal workforce problem, Congress should rethink its mandate that all screeners be federal employees and U.S citizens. Instead, they should recruit and train a highly skilled cadre of federal supervisors, to be present at every single passenger-screening checkpoint at all 400 airports covered by the new law. Their job would be to supervise the screeners hired by each airport under the new federal standards for English-proficiency and training requirements. This would allow many of the current screeners to continue in their jobs, after receiving additional training, and prevent a massive shortage of screeners during the coming year.

As for the deadline requiring every piece of baggage to be X-rayed by the end of 2002, Congress could modify this to apply only to the bags of passengers not participating in a trusted-traveler program.

Under such a program, which has existed for several years in Israel, travelers volunteer for background checks and are issued a biometric ID card. Trusted travelers’ checked bags wouldn’t have to be X-rayed on domestic flights, thereby reducing the needed number of million-dollar machines by one-third to one-half.

Congress acted in haste, under intense public pressure to “do something.” But what’s needed now is a more careful look at which “somethings” will actually make flying safer.

Robert W. Poole, Jr. directs the Transportation Studies Program at the Reason Foundation. He advised the White House Domestic Policy Council and several members of Congress on ways to improve airport security following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.