Union Tribune

February 6, 2003

Fight becomes hotter over cost of aviation measures


WASHINGTON The cost of aviation security is continuing to mount, and the question of who will pay for it is becoming increasingly divisive.

Airlines and airports are demanding that the federal government pick up more of the tab for an array of security measures. They range from more thorough cargo screening and stronger cockpit doors to guards at passenger gates and office space for federal security officials at airports.

"As the airlines struggle to climb out of the financial hole the industry is in, it keeps getting deeper and deeper as a result of new security costs," James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association, told the Senate aviation subcommittee yesterday.

"Congress must establish and enforce an unalterable policy that aviation security is the responsibility of the federal government."

Though deadlines for converting passenger screeners into a federal work force and checking all luggage for bombs were met recently, at great expense, "The heavy lifting and costs still lie ahead," said Kenneth M. Mead, the Transportation Department's inspector general.

One of the biggest costs is associated with incorporating bulky bomb-detection machines into the regular baggage-handling system. That will require major renovations at some airports, where the machines are now operated in public areas.

The cost has been estimated at $3 billion to $5 billion nationwide, including $90 million at San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

The Transportation Security Administration requested a total of $5.3 billion for the current fiscal year. The new Department of Homeland Security, which will include the transportation agency, asked for $4.8 billion for aviation security next fiscal year, Mead said.

James M. Loy, who heads the agency, said his organization is "working closely with airports" on equipment installation. Last year, Congress gave the agency an extra $738 million to help pay for airport modifications, he noted.

But airport officials complain that $500 million of that went to pay for a contract the transportation agency had with Boeing for design, engineering and construction work associated with deploying the bomb-detection machines.

"It is unclear what portion has gone to make terminal modifications," Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, told the subcommittee.

Similarly, the Air Transport Association's May grumbled that the federal government had covered less than one-third of the $300 million cost of "hardening" cockpit doors against would-be intruders.

Loy said, "Air carriers are still responsible for security costs in several areas, including flight deck modifications."

Several other potentially expensive security programs are on the horizon, including the arming of pilots; self-defense training for air crews; and heightened security for cargo, much of which is carried on passenger planes.

Loy said cargo security is a priority and that President Bush is requesting $30 million from Congress for a trial program. It would include development of a "random, risk-weighted freight screening process" and improved tracking of shippers.

"We simply do not have the technology available" to subject all cargo to the same scrutiny that passenger baggage gets, Loy said.

Cargo screening machines can cost as much as $10 million, compared with less than $1 million for luggage screening equipment, and also are bulky and costly to install, Mead said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced legislation yesterday that would require commercial jets to be equipped with technology to thwart shoulder-fired missiles. Her bill would have the federal government pick up the tab for the existing airline fleet, which she estimated at $7 billion to $10 billion.

But under the bill, the cost of installing the technology on new airplanes would not be covered by the government.