Mandate Bomb Scanners Now

It's shocking but true: Since April, 1992, the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York has had equipment that scans luggage for drugs and could, with some slight modifications and minimum expense, be employed to detect explosives. But the machines are used by the U.S. Customs Service, not the airline, therefore they inspect only luggage that is incoming.

Although the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800 has yet to be determined, the threat of terrorist incidents looms large around the globe. Forty or so airports in Europe have already installed U.S.-made equipment to detect bombs, while numerous others have ordered the equipment. The European Civil Aviation Conference has stipulated that all checked baggage must be electronically screened by 2000.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to mandate the use of such high-tech scanners, in part because it wants them to be almost totally automatic and not subject to human error. That's understandably driving costs higher and prolonging development. Today, the one system that would satisfy the FAA costs $1 million. It is being used on a trial basis at only three airline terminals in the U.S.--two in Atlanta and one in San Francisco.

Instead of waiting for ideal solutions, the FAA should give the airlines the option of installing existing machines--some of which cost as little as $125,000. And it should permit the airlines to keep that equipment even after it issues new and final guidelines for such scanning equipment--so long as the airlines can show that their equipment is equally effective at spotting explosives. The key to their effective use, it turns out, is proper training of the machine operators. Yes, all of this will raise the cost of doing business to the airlines, and yes, the public will have to pay for it in higher ticket prices. But edgy fliers might just be willing to ante up.