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TSA takes on costs of airport security

In a long-anticipated move, the Transportation Security Administration Monday finalized agreements to help three of the nation’s largest airports pay for the installation of explosive-detection equipment.

The federal government will soon pony up millions of dollars to help airports improve their security.

In a long-anticipated move, the Transportation Security Administration Monday finalized agreements to help three of the nation's largest airports pay for the installation of explosive-detection equipment. Under the agreements, TSA will pick up 75 percent of the cost of integrating the technology into baggage handling systems at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Boston's Logan International Airport, and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Similar agreements are being negotiated with other large airports.

"This is a huge deal," said Stephen Van Beek, senior vice president of policy at the Airports Council International-North America. "It's the only way some of these airports can get to 100 percent electronic screening."

Since Congress mandated that all checked bags be screened for explosives, and stipulated the types of machines that must be used, it's imperative for the federal government to share some of the costs, he said. Without government assistance, airports would be forced to charge their tenants-mainly the financially strapped airlines-added fees to build the expensive security systems, Van Beek said.

Officials at Logan spent nearly $140 million to add explosive detection equipment to its system. Under Monday's agreement, TSA will reimburse Logan $87 million. Both the Seattle-Tacoma and Dallas-Fort Worth airports were waiting for the agreements to be made official before moving ahead. They will receive $159 million and $104 million respectively. The payments are stretched out over two to five years.

The funding will pay to integrate the SUV-size detection equipment along baggage conveyor belts, rather than in airport lobbies, where many of the machines now sit. Inline screening is considered more efficient and more secure because it ensures that every piece of checked luggage passes through an explosive-detection machine. Also, it requires fewer TSA employees, since fewer machines need to be monitored.

The capital spending TSA will subsidize at airports covers site preparation, structural reinforcement to support new equipment, electrical work, heating, air conditioning and other environmental improvements, as well as the purchase of conveyor belts, tables and other physical enhancements.

TSA Administrator James Loy promised last year that the agency would shoulder some of the burden of installing security equipment. But the agreements were slow in coming, largely because of budget constraints. They were negotiated under the watchful eyes of both Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, both of which have been critical of TSA's spending patterns in the past.

Nearly 30 more airports are awaiting agreements, according to industry sources. TSA must issue the remaining letters as soon as possible if it is to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for 100 percent electronic screening of all checked bags, said Van Beek. Last year, Congress extended the deadline for electronic screening from the end of 2002 to the end of 2003. At some airports, TSA currently uses a combination of dogs, hand searches and passenger matches for screening checked bags.

The agency is working hard to ensure that other agreements are signed quickly, said TSA spokesman Brian Turmail. "We are focused on getting to 100 percent electronic screening," he said.