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Who Pays?

It’s also unclear who will end up paying for the latest technology. The actors are in a classic standoff, eyeing each other to see who’ll make a move. The airlines are responsible for security, but they don’t want to buy advanced equipment if it is not FAA certified; if the FAA mandates a different technology a year later, the airline will have wasted its money. The manufacturers aren’t motivated to get certification because they fear the FAA specs will change. The airports have no incentive to take over duties that now fall to airlines. Congress doesn’t want to mandate technology.

The irony is that the cost to passengers for better technology would be small. People take about 530 million flights in the United States each year. Raising $2 billion would add $4 a ticket. But even at that price, the financially weak airlines want the government to pay.

Spending tax dollars to buy equipment headed to for-profit companies rankles many Americans. But Grodzins says the public and Congress have to take a broader view. “These attacks are not against Pan Am or TWA,” he says, but against the United States. “It is the government’s responsibility to fight this war, not the airlines’.” The FAA’s recent appropriation of $52.2 million to install CTX-5000 scanners may bolster this position.

Thermedics president Langan says the airport authorities should foot the bill, with government funding R&D. “That’s how it’s done in the rest of the world,” he notes. The logic is that security is a policing function that should be performed throughout the airport-not just at airline gates, but at every door-and should be extended not just to passengers, but to every ground-crew member, security guard, and employee of caterers and freight handlers. In the United Kingdom, Langan says, airports have found cost-effective ways of discharging their responsibility for security. Most British airports contract security functions to commercial companies, which purchase better detection equipment and pay and train operators more than the government ever did, because they are competing to provide the best service.

To implement this model, Congress would have to widen the FAA’s jurisdiction to include airports. Airports would likely be owned by quasipublic corporations like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. Evidently, Congress is game. The reauthorization act directs the FAA administrator to report on whether to transfer certain security functions from airlines to airports, and if so, how.

Given the technical, social, and financial issues, some are tempted to wait to deploy a more perfect technology. But Grodzins says the government has already waited too long. “We have a real, live enemy here. We should deploy the best we have, and upgrade it later. We have to put these machines out there to find their real strengths and weaknesses. In the meantime their very presence will deter more terrorists.”

A clearer deployment strategy may emerge in the next few months. At press time the Gore commission’s final recommendations, addressing long-term financing, were due out February 15. By June, the National Research Council will issue its second annual report, which will advise the FAA on what to implement. And the year-long trial of hundreds of machines sprung by the October 9 appropriation will soon be in full swing.
In order for new technology to do its job properly, some other holes in airport security will have to be plugged. A moderate-sized airport is a veritable sieve, with more than 200 doors and passageways; many security experts say they have wandered into restricted areas unencumbered. In addition, no technologies or procedures are in place for inspecting mail or freight, and none are planned. NRC panel chair Swenson adds that “background checking of airline and airport employees, and potential new hires, is also loose.”

Another problem area is operator training. The NRC feels operators could be the weakest link in future systems. “Low wages, high turnover, inadequate training, and poor working conditions need to be addressed,” security committee chair Beauchamp told Congress in September.

Maintaining tight security also depends on testing the system. The FAA uses “red teams” to try to foil security at random airports. They have sneaked suspicious packages, fake bombs, and weapons past guards and x-ray machine operators, then reported back to the airline that security had better shape up. But the FAA needs to watch its own back. A 1996 audit by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general on red team activities at 26 airports revealed that a few FAA special agents appeared to tip off airline personnel, or failed to report breeches of security, perhaps because of quid-pro-quo deals with airline employees.

It’s too early to predict when new technology may be permanently installed. Although the October 9 appropriation jump-starts the process, it could fizzle. “The FAA pays a lot of attention to the political winds,” says MIT’s Grodzins. “Manufacturers have gotten burned before. Lots of legislation was rapidly passed after the 1988 Pan Am bombing, but we’re still using the same technology on domestic flights now as we were using the day before it happened.”

So the standoff may continue until Congress commands the FAA to require new technology. What would prompt legislators to do so? George Swenson fears the simple, terrible answer: “A few more bombings.”n

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