WASHINGTON -- Requiring inspection of all cargo on passenger planes could potentially make them more vulnerable to terrorist attack while also hindering commerce, the nation's aviation security chief said Wednesday.
In his first public comments on a bill approved by the House on Jan. 9, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief Kip Hawley said inspecting all passenger-plane cargo would add "a very small, incremental benefit for security."
Hawley said it also could divert airport screeners from other activities such as screening airport employees, inspecting passenger travel documents and looking for suspicious travelers.
"If you spend all your resources opening boxes and not applying your resources more generally, that opens up another vulnerability," Hawley told the Senate Aviation Subcommittee. "The adaptive terrorist will go there."
Passenger planes carry about 6 billion tons of cargo a year, typically goods that need fast shipment such as seafood and auto parts. The items are held in the belly of jets with passenger luggage, which is inspected for bombs. Only a small portion of such cargo is checked by bomb-detection machines or dogs.
The House bill aimed at strengthening domestic security would require the cargo to get the same screening as luggage by October 2009.
Hawley said requiring the cargo inspection by late 2009 "is not feasible without impeding the legitimate flow of commerce and imposing an unreasonable cost on the government." Much air cargo is brought to airports in large containers that won't fit through a luggage-bomb detector, Hawley said.
The House bill does not specify whether the TSA or airlines would inspect cargo.
The Senate Aviation Subcommittee plans to propose its own aviation-security bill that is likely to be less far-reaching on cargo than the House bill.
Subcommittee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wants to give TSA flexibility in improving cargo security and will "carefully weigh" how a new law affects airlines and the economy, spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said.
Airline and cargo-shipping groups oppose inspecting all passenger-plane cargo. The Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, welcomed Hawley's testimony, saying it "has always believed that physical screening of air cargo is not the most effective way to assure the security of air travelers."
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a leading advocate for inspecting cargo, said technology could do the job without disrupting commerce.
Hawley said the TSA has strengthened cargo security by requiring packages that people bring directly to airports to go through luggage-bomb detectors, and by adding dog teams. The agency largely regulates cargo by setting security requirements for companies that ship goods on passenger planes.
Hawley also said agencies are reviewing a watch list that keeps people off airplanes and removing about half the names. That should reduce incidents in which innocent travelers' names match those of terrorism suspects, and the travelers are barred from flying.