"The system we now have in place, the failure rate [to detect explosives] is just disastrous," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee, at a hearing. Detailed information on failure rates is classified, the lawmakers said.
In addition, TSA's baggage handlers are injured on the job more often than employees at other federal agencies, Mica said. He cited an Occupational Safety and Health Administration report that said 16 percent of TSA baggage screeners were injured at work.
The physical toll on screeners can be measured in dollars and cents: the $55 million for workers' compensation requested by the agency in its fiscal 2007 budget is a 40 percent increase from 2006.
Systems that keep luggage out of screeners' hands and on conveyor belts would be faster and safer, Mica said. Some baggage examination machines require too much staffing, as well, he said.
He also urged the agency to look into a more standard and consistent screening system. "TSA unfortunately created a hodgepodge of systems," he said, calling for an investigation into the agency's screening contracts.
Some of the machines certified, bought and deployed to airports by TSA test for explosives residue on bags, while others target materials with density comparable to explosives. They vary widely in size, efficiency and cost.
The machines fall into two categories: explosive detection systems (EDS) and explosive trace detection machines (ETD). TSA is considering, or has deployed, 10 different EDS and ETDs since 1996. Nearly $4 billion has been spent since fiscal 2002 on EDS alone, according to Mica.
The baggage inspection systems represent an improvement in aviation security since Sept. 11, said subcommittee member Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill. But the bomb detection systems might not be ready for widespread use at major air traffic hubs.
"Maybe the expectations were set too high," he said.
Mica said because of the sheer weight of some systems and the ergonomic reconfigurations that accompany their installment, older, major airports may have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to accommodate the machines and some may find the task impossible. TSA should pinpoint one system that can be implemented on a broad scale, instead of using its current variety of machines, he said.
TSA's assistant administrator for operational process and technology, Randy Null, said the agency has made important strides in screening since December 2002. TSA is working with the aviation industry to develop a cost-sharing program for some baggage screening, and a study will be prepared by the end of 2006 on that program.
"The systems we deploy today are significantly more efficient than the systems initially deployed, and the systems we deploy tomorrow will be even better," Null said.
Mica, however, was not appeased.
"We're three … years into this thing," he said at one point. "It just drives me out of my gourd…. What ... went wrong?"