Airport security agency seeks bids for explosive detection machines

The Transportation Security Administration is looking for a company to oversee the implementation of more than 1,700 explosive detection machines at every U.S. airport, according to a notice issued by the Transportation Department Tuesday.

The move signals the start of an accelerated competition that will pit some of the largest technology firms in the federal market against one another for what TSA calls "a program of critical importance and urgency to our country." The 2002 Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed by President Bush on Nov. 19, requires every airport in the nation to check all passenger luggage with explosive detection systems by the end of the year.

The task is daunting. Only two companies, L-3 Communications of New York and InVision Technologies of Newark, Calif., have systems that meet Federal Aviation Administration standards for use in airports. At maximum production levels and without additional assistance or facilities, the manufacturers together can churn out about 90 machines a month, according to company representatives. Observers have suggested that using other companies' larger manufacturing facilities could speed up production. The machines built by L-3 and InVision each scan about 500 bags per hour.

Only about 10 percent of the 1 billion bags moving through U.S. airports every year are checked for explosives. Traditional X-ray machines can spot large bricks of plastic explosives hidden in luggage. But terrorists have learned how to roll that material into innocuous shapes, according to detection technology experts.

Observers' fears that terrorists are using new methods to conceal explosives and foil X-ray machines were heightened in December when Richard Reed, a British national reportedly trained by the al Qaeda terrorist network, allegedly tried to ignite explosive material he'd hidden in the soles of his shoes while traveling aboard an American Airlines jet from Paris to Miami.

The explosive detection machines required by the new law can scan the density of an object, which never changes, instead of just its shape, helping human baggage screeners discern a harmless item from a potential threat, the manufacturers say. The machines capture multi-dimensional visual "slices" of a suspicious item in a piece of luggage and then display them on a screen.

TSA will use an unusual acquisition strategy for the contract. Rather than give bidders a list of specific requirements, TSA has issued a "statement of objectives" that asks the competing companies to craft approaches on their own based on the government's end goal of 100 percent deployment by the deadline. The bidders must also devise their own performances measures, a set of benchmarks on which the quality of their work would be judged and rewarded.

TSA's approach takes full advantage of procurement regulations reform of the 1990s, said Steven Kelman, the former administrator of the Office of Procurement Policy and an architect of those changes. Kelman reviewed the agency's plan and said making companies set their own performance measures is "state of the art" contracting. Few government agencies are using such a strategy today, Kelman said.

Acquisition Solutions Inc., a consulting firm based in Chantilly, Va., crafted the objectives-oriented approach for TSA.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Patrick Stillman, head of the agency's multibillion dollar fleet modernization program, Deepwater, which uses a similar vendor-led approach, said this is the best path for TSA to take. Rather than sole sourcing the work to a single vendor, Stillman said competition would force bidders to come up with the best plans based on their own assessments of their capabilities.

At least one company reached for comment today said it plans to bid on the TSA's high-profile contract. A spokesman for Defense contracting giant Raytheon of Lexington, Mass., said the company will respond by the agency-imposed due date of Feb. 19.