Most airline passengers not screened for bombs
August 27, 2004
WASHINGTON (AP) – Even with all the security gains since the Sept. 11 attacks, most airline passengers in the United States aren’t screened for explosives before boarding a plane.
Luggage checked onto commercial planes goes through machines that can detect explosives. X-ray machines for carryon bags can spot metal, such as knives and guns – but not explosives.
If screeners deem a carryon bag suspicious, they use wands to detect explosive residue.
Most passengers receive no such scrutiny. They walk through metal detectors. Some of those are also checked with hand-held metal detectors. Some have shoes or other items inspected with the explosive-detection wands.
In its final report, the Sept. 11 commission said the Transportation Security Administration and Congress must improve the way screeners look for explosives at airports. “As a start, each individual selected for special screening should be screened for explosives,” the report said.
Russian authorities say traces of an explosive were found among wreckage of one of two commercial planes that crashed almost simultaneously Wednesday, raising the possibility a suicide bomber brought down at least one of the planes.
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Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a Sept. 11 commission member, told the House aviation subcommittee this week that the prospect of suicide bombers getting on U.S. aircraft is “a very real threat.”
He said it’s more likely now a terrorist will try to smuggle explosives aboard U.S. planes because they have been made more secure against other threats. Extra security measures include reinforced cockpit doors, more air marshals and electronic screening of checked baggage.
Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon pointed to the British example of requiring screeners to physically search all passengers. “We’re doing nothing to detect nonmetallic explosives concealed on a person’s body,” said DeFazio, the subcommittee’s most senior Democrat.
TSA chief David Stone, appearing with Lehman, testified the agency hasn’t decided whether it should check more people for bombs when they’re screened a second time. He said the agency for now won’t try to require all passengers to be patted down.
The TSA recently began testing to see if equipment to detect explosives on people will work and won’t slow down screening. The walkthrough machines are being tried out in Rochester, N.Y., Providence, R.I., San Diego, and Tampa, Fla., and will soon be in Biloxi, Miss.
Made by General Electric Co., they analyze the air around a person to see if it contains explosive substances. The “EntryScan” machines were already approved for use in U.S. airports, and are in use now in power plants and military installations in the United States and Europe.
Each machine costs about $140,000, and installing them at 2,000 checkpoints in the nation’s 441 commercial airports would cost about $280 million. To date, the government has spent more than $10 billion on aviation security since the terrorist attacks.
Stone said the TSA also is reviewing:
-“Backscatter” machines, which bounce low-level X-rays against a person in a booth. The machines produce a black-and-white image that will show any concealed weapons or explosives.
-Scanners that can detect explosives on driver’s licenses, passports and other documents shown at airports.
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