31 July 2003
Moving Toward 100% Electronic Screening for Air Travel
Op-ed column by chief of Transportation Security
(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.)
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
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
(James M. Loy is administrator of the Transportation Security