Airlines Faces Possible Costs of Buying Antimissile Systems

The House Committee on Homeland Security rejected a bid by Democrats late last month to provide $115 million to study whether commercial aircraft can be protected from shoulder-fired missiles through ground-based technology. The development of a ground-based system to protect airplanes from terrorist attacks could save the airline industry billions of dollars. It is possible the Democrats will be able to revive the antimissile provision on the House floor.

Legislation will soon be introduced requiring commercial aircraft to be outfitted with antimissile systems, a move that will not be welcomed by cash- strapped airlines.

The $115 million for ground-based research was included in a package of amendments by Democrats on April 27 as the committee considered a bill authorizing money for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The provision on shoulder-fired missiles authorized money for research and development to build prototypes, and for system engineering for anti-missile devices, specifically to explore whether a ground-based anti-missile system is plausible. A new report by the Cato Institute says one possibility to protect commercial aircraft is the use of ground-based, high-energy lasers housed in large trucks near airports that would destroy shoulder-fired missiles fired by terrorists.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Homeland Security, inserted the ground-based antimissile research funding provision into the block of amendments by Democrats.

The prospect of making commercial airlines install antimissile technology has become quite controversial, with several think tanks trying to attach a dollar amount to such an endeavor. The airline industry says the cost of developing, installing, operating and maintaining antimissile systems could cost more than $40 billion over 10 years.

The amendments rejected by the House committee also included $250 million for enhancing passenger screening and $650 million for in-line explosive detection system (EDS) technology. The block of amendments was formally introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). He said the expenditures would be considered budget-neutral by the Congressional Budget Office because the money would come from $1.5 billion raised by additional security fees on airlines.

The new fees were included in the Bush administration's budget proposal for fiscal year 2006. High-ranking members of several committees in the House and Senate are laying the groundwork to defeat the highly controversial White House revenue-generating plan (ABR, April 25). One House member who opposes the fee is Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

DeFazio still holds out some hope the screening enhancement provision may be included in the bill when it reaches the House floor, according to Kristie Greco, press secretary for DeFazio. The lawmaker struck an angry note after the block of amendments was defeated. "We don't defend the United States Capitol with the crap they're using in our airports," he said. "It was thrown out years ago as inadequate to the threat to the Capitol, the White House and other federal buildings, because it couldn't find the threat objects. But that's what we're using at airports. It's 1980s technology."

In addition to being a member of the Committee on Homeland Security, DeFazio is a member of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee. Late last month, he was joined Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the aviation subcommittee, and Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) in introducing legislation to speed up the deployment of new equipment to screen checked baggage and passengers at airports. DeFazio therefore will get another chance to press for the very legislation on airport screening that was rejected by the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Last year, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) specifically recommended that the Transportation Security Administration and Congress "give priority attention to improving the ability of screeners at checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers." The resulting Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (P.L. 108-458) authorized $250 million for the research and deployment of advanced passenger screening technologies, such as trace portals and X-ray systems. To date, however, only about $30 million has been appropriated specifically for the general deployment of these types of technologies.