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IP: Tracking: Machines to Check Airline Bags Mostly Idle, Report Says

From: [email protected]
Subject: IP: Tracking: Machines to Check Airline Bags Mostly Idle, Report Says
Date: Sun, 11 Oct 1998 08:03:44 -0500
To: [email protected]

Source:  New York Times

October 11, 1998

Machines to Check Airline Bags Mostly Idle, Report Says


WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration has spent
more than $122 million on machines to detect bombs in checked
baggage, but those machines that have been installed sit idle for most of
the day, according to investigators from the Department of

The machines, which cost $1.3 million each to buy and install, are
supposed to be capable of handling 225 bags an hour, but of 13 that
were audited by investigators, nine handled fewer than 200 bags a day,
according to a report released on Friday. 

Some got so little use that the operators could not maintain proficiency in
running them, investigators said. 

"At some airports, they're sitting relatively unused," Lawrence Weintrob,
an assistant inspector general of the Transportation Department, said in a
telephone interview. "Some airports that are using them are using them
rarely, or process relatively few bags through them." 

But Cathal Flynn, assistant administrator of the FAA for civil aviation
security, said the average number of bags processed through each
machine was rising sharply as airlines gained experience. Flynn and airline
representatives said that part of the problem was that the computerized
system for choosing which passengers' bags get scanned was still
developing, and would not be fully implemented until the end of the year. 

"We haven't ironed out all the kinks in the process," said Susan Rork,
managing director of security at the Air Transport Association, the trade
group of the major airlines. 

The computerized system singles out individuals about whom there is too
little information to conclude that they are not a threat, officials say. It
also draws a sample from the group judged not to be a threat, to increase
the chance that a terrorist would be caught, and to make the system
fairer, Flynn said. 

One problem, he said, is that if the system were changed to require that a
larger number of passengers have their bags scrutinized, then at peak
periods people would be delayed so long they would miss their flights. 

"If you get people fuming at a line, that's not good either," Flynn said.
That, he said, would probably discourage machine operators from doing
their jobs right. And delays, he said, would damage public acceptance of
security measures. 

In written comments responding to the report, the FAA said that the
agency would "pursue a more coherent strategy with air carriers to
ramp-up to a higher level of use." However, the agency said, it would be
"many years" before technology allowed screening of all bags. 

Auditors also said that the machines in use could handle only about half
as many bags as they did in lab tests, partly because they sound false
alarms far more when in use at airports. Each false alarm requires time to
resolve. (All alarms so far have been false, officials said, because no
bombs have been detected.) 

The machines' higher false alarm rate is "probably a reason why they
don't use it as often as they should," Weintrob said. 

Fifty-nine of the machines have been installed so far; plans are to have 74
in place by the end of the year, he said. 

Officials of airports where the machines are installed declined to
comment and asked not to be identified. Under FAA rules, airport
operators are responsible for various aspects of security, but not for
screening bags. That responsibility falls to the airlines. 

 Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
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