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31 July 2003

Moving Toward 100% Electronic Screening for Air Travel

Op-ed column by chief of Transportation Security Administration

(This column by James M. Loy, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, was published in USA Today July 30 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)

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TSA is making progress
By James M. Loy

The discovery of a loaded handgun concealed in a child's teddy bear underscores the alertness of TSA screeners.

This recent incident at Orlando International Airport also carries lessons -- about the need to screen all travelers, even 10-year-olds and why passengers should never attempt to take items received from strangers through the security checkpoint.

Finally, the teddy bear case speaks volumes about how much progress has been made since TSA began taking over screening roughly a year ago. Phasing in a complete workforce at each of the 420-plus airports has served to make travel safer than ever.

Challenges still abound, including a congressional mandate to screen all checked bags with electronic equipment by Dec. 31. Before 9/11, only 5% were being screened, with a 1997 report by a White House commission estimating it would take at least seven years to get to 100%. But since last Dec. 31, every bag is screened, most using electronic equipment and a small number using other methods approved by Congress.

One key to this progress is the use of trace detection machines, where screeners swab a bag and then test the residue for explosive materials. This system must undergo the same rigorous certification standards as do explosive detection machines. While a seven-year-old study downplayed the value of explosive trace detection, it never contemplated the improvements in training and screening techniques brought about by TSA.

To get to 100% electronic screening, TSA is working feverishly to build on systems already in place, using creative financing that maximizes federal, local airport and private investments to achieve the most progress as soon as possible.

Congress and the Department of Homeland Security recently committed $350 million for new baggage screening systems at the Dallas/Fort Worth, Boston and Seattle/Tacoma airports. Negotiations are under way with several other airports. Because of those talks, we have yet to determine what the final cost will be in the next fiscal year.

The number of machines ultimately needed is a moving target, changing to reflect security needs, advances in technology, volume of bags to be screened, as well as available appropriations. What won't change is TSA's dedication and desire to get this job done as soon as possible.

(James M. Loy is administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.)

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