Florida company pitches aviation security plan to Congress

The owner of a Florida-based transportation logistics company wants Congress to study a plan he says will increase aviation security while saving the airline industry billions of dollars.

Richard Altomare, chairman and president of Universal Express in Boca Raton, Fla., has been briefing lawmakers and industry representatives in recent weeks on a proposal he says will revolutionize how airline baggage is handled and shipped.

Under his plan, airline passengers will be encouraged to ship their luggage and bags in advance of their flights through a private courier service, such as UPS, FedEx or Universal Express Inc. Passengers will be offered a framework of choices to either ship their luggage in advance at a lower price than the airline charges, or continue to carry their bags to the airport and pay a higher price.

Doing so, said Altomare, will relieve the commercial airline industry from having to screen millions of bags for potential weapons, and increase airline security because fewer bags will be aboard planes. Altomare said his plan could save the government $1.4 billion in baggage screening costs and up to $6 billion in labor costs, while generating billions of dollars in new revenue for the freight industry overall and potentially a few hundred thousand new jobs.

Last month, Altomare briefed House and Senate members and staff, as well as officials with the Homeland Security Department and the Commerce Department, on his plan.

Altomare said lawmakers and their staffers showed interest in his plan, and he is now hoping that they will study it further.

"The current system does not create incentive-based choices for passengers to limit the baggage they carry," the white paper states. "Consequently, existing baggage practices add to both security risks and costs to air travel. Existing practices do little to influence the demand for baggage screening. Instead, the focus is largely upon screening and transporting an unconstrained supply of baggage associated with passengers."

Baggage screening has been an especially thorny issue for aviation security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The Transportation Security Administration has come under fire and investigation by Congress for not doing enough to prevent passenger and baggage security breaches at the nation's airports.

Last month, bags containing box cutters and other suspicious items were found aboard two Southwest Airlines planes during routine maintenance checks, causing TSA to issue a national alert for all commercial planes to be checked. Authorities later learned that a 20-year-old college student, Nathaniel Heatwole, placed the bags aboard the planes to test security nearly five weeks before they were found, even though Heatwole sent TSA e-mails telling the agency what he had done and how to contact him. That incident has a prompted an investigation by the House Select Committee on Homeland Security into why TSA ignored the e-mails. The House Government Reform Committee and the House Infrastructure and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation also launched reviews last month on problems with aviation security.

Those developments have convinced Altomare his proposal is on the mark. He contends that private courier services will have the capacity to handle increased cargo, and passengers will benefit through reduced ticket prices and waiting times.

"The events of 9/11 have led to a greater federal role in ensuring the security of the air transportation network," the white paper concludes. "Steps can be taken to simultaneously enhance the security of travelers from terrorist attacks and the financial health of the airline industry. Universal Express proposes for consideration assessing security charges per bag and providing incentives for passengers to ship bags in advance via competitive parcel services."

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