Daily Breeze

July 24, 2002

Airport security deadline at risk

By TOBY ECKERT 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON — After months of dancing around the subject, federal officials now are openly talking about abandoning a cornerstone deadline in the nation's anti-terrorism campaign — having all checked airline luggage screened for bombs by the end of the year.

The House is scheduled to take up legislation this week that would
delay the bomb-screening deadline by a year.

Separately, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Tuesday that funding delays and cuts by Congress had “dramatically undermined our ability” to meet the deadlines established in federal law after Sept. 11, though he stopped short of saying they would not be met.

Many lawmakers aren't so equivocal.

“At best it may be impossible to produce even half the
(bomb-detection machines) that may be required,” House aviation
subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said at a hearing on the issue. “We cannot allow the prospect of three- and four-hour passenger waits at the end of this year.”

Aviation experts say the officials are bowing to the reality that the
deadlines — which also include federalizing all passenger screeners by Nov. 19 — were overly ambitious. But the move to delay the
bomb-screening mandate is likely to face a pitched battle on the House floor.

Rep. James Oberstar, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, called the proposal “an outrage,” blasting airlines and airports for lobbying for a delay.

“It happened in the aftermath of (the 1988 bombing) of Pan Am 103 and it's happening again in the aftermath of 9-11,” he said. “. . . The same crowd is now coming before Congress and the American people, saying, `We can't do it. We can't meet the deadline. So give us more time.' ”

Points finger at Congress

But Mineta put the onus on Congress, criticizing appropriators for
trimming $1 billion and 20,000 employees from a $4.4 billion funding request by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA.

“The amount of money Congress is about to approve simply will not
support the mandates and timetables for aviation security that Congress set last fall for TSA,” he told the subcommittee, predicting “longer lines and inconveniences for the traveling public.”

Besides the Dec. 31 deadline it faces for installing thousands of
bomb-detection machines at airports nationwide, the TSA is also
struggling to hire more than 30,000 passenger screeners by Nov. 19. The latter effort has been hampered by the high number of applicants who don't show up for assessments or who fail aptitude tests, according to the Transportation Department's inspector general.

Even if Congress approves a significant boost in funding for the TSA
in fiscal year 2003, which starts Oct. 1, “we are confronted with a load that the TSA cannot lift,” Mineta said.

“Such funds will not arrive prior to our having to make immediate
changes to our existing deployment schedule,” he said.

Airport officials and airline executives have become increasingly
outspoken in their criticism of the deadlines, which are part of a
sweeping aviation security law passed by Congress in November. They have raised the prospect of gridlock at the height of the holiday travel season if enough bomb-detection machines can't be installed or enough screeners hired.

The deadlines can't be met even “if they gave (Mineta) all the money in the world,” said Billie H. Vincent, a former FAA official who heads a consulting firm that designs security systems for airports and airlines.

“It's been obvious to those of us who understand the technology,
understand the systems, that it would be physically impossible for them to do what they were mandated to do,” he said.<P>

Want deadline met


But some lawmakers feel strongly that Congress should not back off
the deadlines, particularly the one for bomb screening.

“God forbid that we grant extensions and there is a bombing on a
plane,” said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. “I want to see who visits
those families and says to them, `I'm sorry because we delayed.' . . . I don't want to have to be that person.”

A House panel last week tucked a yearlong delay in the bomb-screening deadline into legislation to establish a new Department of Homeland Security. Legislation has also been introduced in the Senate to push back the deadline for airports with terminal designs that may complicate installation of bomb detectors.

At Los Angeles International Airport, new federal security director
David Stone said the airport has detailed plans to install enough
explosives-detection machines to process all checked luggage by Dec. 31. Stone believes the Nov. 19 deadline is realistic for having federal security work forces in place at all the nation's commercial
airports.

About 2,000 workers likely will be needed to screen passengers and
baggage at LAX, Stone said.