Editorial: Airport Screening Pass the Smell Test

Sept. 3, 2004
The suspected sabotage of two commercial airliners in Russia last week highlights the urgency of a lesser-noticed recommendation

Philadelphia Inquirer via NewsEdge Corporation : The suspected sabotage of two commercial airliners in Russia last week highlights the urgency of a lesser-noticed recommendation on Page 393 of the 9/11 Commission Report - to screen airline passengers for explosives.

The report urged Congress and the federal Transportation Security Administration to give "priority attention" to improving airport screening to detect bombs on passengers' bodies. U.S. airports do examine luggage for explosives, and screeners can check selected passengers with a bomb-detecting "wand" (or ask you to remove your shoes). But the vast majority of airline passengers are not searched for bombs.

That needs to change. The 9/11 commission cited our failure to imagine the worst from terrorists, and the crashes in Russia could serve as a reminder of that lesson.

The leading theory of investigators in Russia is that female Islamist suicide attackers, carrying a high explosive known as hexogen, boarded two jetliners and detonated their bombs after take-off from Moscow. All 90 people aboard the two aircraft were killed when the planes crashed minutes apart.

Most airports in the United States, including Philadelphia International, do not yet have the advanced screening equipment to stop someone who is carrying a bomb the size of a bar of soap from getting on a plane. But the TSA is moving in the right direction under Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

At five airports, the TSA is testing walk-through machines, which can detect if a passenger is carrying explosives. The devices electronically "sniff" the molecules coming off a passenger's body; the process takes about 10 seconds per person. The sensors have been used for years at nuclear power plants.

House Aviation subcommittee chairman John Mica (R., Fla.) has said he wants these machines in every airport in the country. Congress and the Homeland Security Department should move forward with such a plan at the earliest opportunity.

A TSA official says the agency plans to expand the program soon to airports in 10 more cities.

The machines cost about $140,000 per unit, and equipping U.S. airports on a large scale will cost, at minimum, tens of millions of dollars. Compared with other start-up expenses at the TSA, and compared with the cost of the war in Iraq, that investment is relatively small. But considering other improvements in airline security since Sept. 11, 2001, screening passengers for explosives remains one of the most glaring gaps in protecting the nation's airways from another catastrophe.