Concerns about aviation security fly during hearing

At a congressional hearing Thursday, the head of the Transportation Security Administration emphasized the progress his agency is making on meeting its mission, but lawmakers expressed frustration-and in some cases outrage-over problems that persist with aviation security.

The most likely threat the aviation industry faces is somebody smuggling a weapon or explosive device past airport screeners and onto a plane, TSA Director James Loy said during a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation. That threat is greater than somebody infiltrating the outside perimeter of an airport and attempting to sabotage a plane, Loy said.

By the end of this year, all airports in the country are supposed to meet a federal deadline that stipulates they screen every passenger and bag. However, when asked by lawmakers, Loy acknowledged that five airports would not meet the deadline because they do not have adequate electronic screening equipment. He declined to say which airports would miss the deadline, but said TSA has signed a letter of intent with all but one of them to meet the goal as soon as possible.

On top of that, not all employees working at airports today are physically screened, Loy said, adding that TSA is contacting airports to find out why.

Recent reports by the General Accounting Office and the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department criticized TSA's screening program. The GAO report found inefficiencies when it comes to screening passengers, while the inspector general said the training program for screeners was insufficient.

Ongoing problems with screening passengers and baggage are fueling the frustrations of lawmakers.

"The GAO report clearly shows that the effort made by TSA to provide an acceptable level of passenger screening is unacceptable," said Rep. William Pascrell, D-N.J. "The report makes it clear that weapons and explosives can still pass through our screening systems. That is unacceptable. This is dangerous, dangerous business."

He added that he believes TSA is "neglecting" other aspects of airport security if workers can pass through checkpoints without being screened.

Loy acknowledged that problems persist with aviation security but said aviation and transportation in general are "radically more secure" now than before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"It would be wrong and harmful to conclude that airport security is no better today than before 9/11," he said.

For example, he said screeners have confiscated about 5 million prohibited items during the last year. He also said TSA will issue data in about six months showing that "the trend lines are where we want them to be or going in the right direction."

According to Loy, some of TSA's main priorities during the next fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, are issuing comprehensive information to airports on whether they should use private screeners or federal workers; developing an adequate information technology system that allows airports to share information; instituting a recurrent training program for screeners; and finding the right balance between part-time and full-time workers.

Loy added that TSA will also put $55 million toward researching and developing technology to screen large cargo trucks. Boston's Logan International Airport is conducting the only pilot program in the country with a system for scanning cargo trucks.

However, Loy said TSA still does not have enough funding for purchasing electronic screening equipment. TSA was also supposed to start the new fiscal year with 49,600 screeners but only has 48,000. The agency is currently hiring part-time workers to fill its ranks, Loy said.