Airlines to Be Asked to Pay Billions to Detect Bombs in Luggage

Chair of House aviation subcommittee will try to convince airline industry to pay additional $6 billion in aviation security fees

Congress is "still nickel and diming it to death," Burns said. "At the end of the day, only a fraction of the airports would have the in-line equipment." In Congress, there is a mentality to "close the barn door after the horses get out," he added, referring to the likelihood lawmakers would quickly raise the additional money if a bomb hidden in luggage brings down a commercial aircraft. Congress rushed to put federal screeners in airports instead of spending money to employ new technology to scan both baggage and passengers for plastic explosives, Burns said.

Without in-line installation, EDS machines would continue to be parked in airport lobbies and subject to more human error, Burns and airport officials say. When it comes to both security and costs, the most effective system is to have private screeners with federal oversight and fully integrated in-line EDS machines, Burns said. The Government Accountability Office has found that in- line EDS systems have the best security detection rates and can reduce personnel costs by 78 percent.

Under current law, the aviation security fee is $2.50 for each leg of a flight, with a maximum of $5 one way. The White House wants to increase the fee to $5.50 per leg, with a maximum of $8 one way. The administration does not specify how the additional money should be spent and proposes no expiration date. The White House proposal has virtually no chance of becoming law this year (ABR, July 4). Mica would like to raise the fee to $5 per leg, with a maximum of $10 one way. Before Mica introduces legislation to do this for three years, he would like to gain the support of the airline industry. "When you have everyone talking on the same sheet of music, it is much easier to get past the House and Senate," Burns said.

The airline industry is being put in an interesting position. Airlines have been doing everything in their power to ward off new taxes and fees, stressing that the additional charges cannot be passed along to passengers because of severe competition from low-cost carriers. On the other hand, airlines want to prevent another terrorist attack that would have huge financial ramifications.

EDS equipment was put in crowded airport ticketing lobbies soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but that was supposed to be a temporary solution. In addition to creating security concerns, the continued operation of the equipment in airport lobbies is labor intensive and forces the federal government to devote scarce resources to personnel, according to the American Association of Airport Executives and Airports Council International.

The two airport groups have formed the Airport Legislative Alliance to assess the impact of congressional actions. Todd Hauptli, senior vice president of the alliance, is very concerned about the low level of funding for in-line installation of EDS equipment. Even if Congress approves the House appropriations bill calling for $75 million more than the White House proposal, only a couple more airports across the country would get the in-line installation, he said in an interview with Airline Business Report.

TSA already has issued letters of intent to move EDS equipment in-line at nine airports. If the federal government insists on installing the equipment "at the pace of government rather than the pace of industry," the nation will wind up with only about 15-20 of the in-line systems at airports, according to Hauptli. That includes the nine airports that received letters of intent. There is a certain irony because the in-line installation would pay for itself in a short period of time through reduced costs, he said. But installing the technology requires an upfront expenditure of capital, and that is the problem.

For the nine airports that received the letters of intent, TSA estimates the in-line installation will save the federal government $1.3 billion over seven years and that the government would recover its initial investment at those airports in just over a year. Hauptli acknowledged that not every commercial airport needs an in-line system to screen baggage. "But the majority of 100 top airports need them," he said. While he believes that existing EDS technology performs the best at this time, new technology under development could be put in ticket counter areas at small and medium-sized airports. But he emphasized that in-line EDS technology is the most effective.