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Questions Again About Effectiveness of Baggage Check

July 18, 1996

Despite a Congressional mandate and years of research, U.S. airports remain without a foolproof system to spot elusive plastic explosives capable of blowing a jumbo jet out of the sky.

Other nations, from Great Britain to Korea, use a variety of chemical sniffers and sophisticated X-rays to do the job. But such systems never met the Federal Aviation Administration’s exacting criteria for speed and accuracy.

Only recently has a $900,000 system been approved for further testing _ too late to catch what might have been a bomb aboard TWA Flight 800.

``We would all like to have a magic box that would detect explosives, and work effectively and efficiently, but no such device has so far been proven,″ said Tim Neal, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.

Three fatal explosions on international airliners have been attributed to terrorist bombs. Even with heightened security following the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, with its loss of 270 lives, experts admit there are holes in the system.

Government and industry officials are reluctant to discuss the specifics of cargo security, including the development of bomb-spotting devices.

``Research and development testing of certain equipment has been under way since 1994,″ said Bob Hawk, a spokesman for the FAA. ``We have been looking at it very carefully.″

Currently, when your suitcase trundles down the conveyor belt and into the bowels of the airport, its route passes an X-ray machine.

As the technology has gone from black and white to color images, the ability to spot dangerous objects has improved.

``There has been tremendous enhancements with color X-rays,″ said Susan Rork, managing director for security at the Air Transport Association. ``Dangerous substances show up better.″

But human and technological failings have made the system far from flawless. X-ray systems rely on human interpretation to spot easily-concealed plastic or sheet explosives.

A British inquest into the Pan Am crash criticized reliance on X-ray screening that failed to spot an estimated 14 ounces of plastic explosive concealed in a radio-cassette player that was packed in a suitcase.

Following the Lockerbie disaster, Congress directed the FAA to speed development of a more effective system. But it was only last year that a system won FAA certification.

That system, similar to a medical CAT scan, uses three-dimensional imaging to better identify and warn of suspicious objects. It is currently being tested at Atlanta and San Francisco airports.

Another system, as yet uncertified, uses magnetic resonance technology to sniff out the magnetic signature given off by explosives. Delta Airlines is using the system for security during the Atlanta Olympics.

While other countries have tried a variety of detection equipment since the late 1980s, none meets FAA standards, including the ability to scan 600 bags an hour with only a 10 percent rate of false alarms.

``There is a frustration in dealing with crowded baggage rooms and long lines of passengers,″ Rork said. ``We’re not really designed to accommodate these systems. However, we are working closely with FAA to integrate them into our operations.″

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