In May, San Francisco International Airport began deploying millions of dollars worth of new baggage-screening machines, to be paid for by the Transportation Security Administration. Yet the agency’s former administrator calls the machines overkill and says they reflect a failure to understand the true purpose of airport security.
“It’s too expensive to stop every dangerous thing,” according Kip Hawley, who ran the agency from 2005 to 2009.
“We need to stop the catastrophic loss of an airplane.”
The TSA is paying to find pea-sized threats when all it needs is to find baseballs, Hawley said. He says the federal government should save billions of dollars by opting for less sophisticated machines.
In Hawley’s view, checked bags do not need to be searched with a fine-toothed comb, since they sit in the belly of an airplane whose metal hull is designed to withstand a wheel-less landing.
“If somebody says, ‘I want you to detect explosive C4,’ you would say, ‘Darn right.’” Hawley said. “But in a world with significant budget restraints, how much are we spending to be able to find a small amount of C4 that can blow up a suitcase or two, but maybe not take the plane down?”
The problem stems back to the creation of the TSA after 9/11, when fancy new screening machines were rolled out in a hurry at airports nationwide. Thanks to the agency’s stringent certification standards, only two companies are eligible to make the machines. Hawley said those standards should be loosened to invite competition.
This summer, the latest model from the manufacturer Morpho Detection is being installed at San Francisco International Airport, which now has about 46 screening machines, according to airport spokesman Michael McCarron. The new CTX 9800, made in Newark costs between $1.3 million and $1.6 million per unit and uses the same technology as a medical CT scanner, according to former Morpho spokesman Steve Hill.
But Hawley, who praised Morpho for sharing its technology with the government following 9/11, said the TSA is paying for an MRI when all it needs is an X-ray.
“You don’t need a huge machine with tons of steel that whips it around,” Hawley said. “We’re missing the boat.”
CTX machines use a massive steel gantry frame to take images from 360 degrees around the item being scanned.
Hill said that technology helps screeners find trace amounts of explosives.
But Hawley maintains that such detail is unnecessary in checked-baggage inspection. The far cheaper AT machine — which employs eight small energy sources that don’t rotate — would give screeners an adequate level of detail to detect major explosive threats, and potentially save the government billions of dollars, he said.
Hawley also said the government should be leasing such machines rather than buying them outright to speed up deployment of machines when needed. Given the high price of this technology, and because the machines have to be bought in a single budget year, he said it could take up to 30 years to outfit every airport in the country with adequate scanning equipment.