Where Are The Bomb Sniffers?

The technology exists to make planes safer-but it's costly

If TWA Flight 800 really was blown apart by a terrorist bomb hidden in luggage, then the tragedy is compounded by travesty. Equipment already in the TWA terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport could have detected such a bomb. Unfortunately, it inspects only incoming luggage, not outgoing. It was installed in April, 1992, by the U.S. Customs Service.

Today, virtually every piece of luggage that enters the U.S. from overseas is screened in the bowels of an international arrivals terminal, but the search is for drugs and drug money, not bombs. "The same equipment could be tweaked and used upstairs to scan outgoing bags for explosives," says Ralph S. Sheridan, president of American Science & Engineering Inc. in Billerica, Mass. AS&E supplies the special X-ray systems to Customs and has already built a modified version for spotting bombs.

At least a half-dozen U.S. companies, plus a few in Europe, now make systems that can detect bombs--including plastic explosives--inside a suitcase or, in some cases, even a cargo container. This equipment is designed to scan luggage that has been checked with the airline, not carry-on bags.

Why aren't some of these new machines being used to inspect checked luggage bound for outgoing flights? In Europe, they are. Some 40 airports have installed U.S.-made equipment, and more have ordered it, because the European Civil Aviation Conference has decreed that all checked baggage must be electronically screened by 2000. Britain hopes to do that by next year.

LONG WAIT. The stuff isn't cheap. Baggage scanners from InVision Technologies Inc. in Foster City, Calif., cost roughly $1 million apiece. Yet the company has delivered 11 systems in Europe, one in Japan, and three in Israel. In the U.S., its equipment is used by only two airlines--Delta Air Lines Inc. in Atlanta and United Airlines Inc. in San Francisco. Israel's El Al Airlines Ltd. will put one in its JFK terminal this year.

One reason for the scarcity of this equipment: the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to mandate its use, even though the agency subsidized the development of most systems. The FAA plans to continue field-testing through 2000. So the airlines may not know what will be required until then.

The FAA declined to be interviewed.

U.S. airlines almost have to wait for direction from the FAA. In Europe, airport security is the responsibility of a government agency or an independent, for-profit operation such as BAA PLC, which runs seven big British airports. But in the U.S., the airlines themselves handle security. Since security has never been a hot marketing issue, it's doubtful they will spend heavily for systems that may not end up complying with the final requirements--especially since the FAA is setting high standards that hike costs.

To minimize the risk of operator error, the FAA has stipulated the equipment be totally automatic. It has to detect explosives 90% of the time without human help--and produce no more than 10% false alarms. Such idiotproof operation is costly and takes longer to develop. So far, InVision's megabuck system is the only one certified by the FAA. The AS&E X-ray machines used by Customs cost only $125,000, but they require a skilled operator. An automated version will run more than $300,000.

So the FAA is in a bind. As a regulator, it wants every bag loaded onto all international flights to be checked for explosives. But the agency figures the bill for that would be $400 million to $2 billion just for the country's 75 major airports. Wearing its other hat as a promoter of aviation, it seems reluctant to force airlines to lay out such huge sums.

Airline security experts praise the FAA for stimulating the development of new security technologies. In the aftermath of the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Congress directed the FAA to come up with answers. The agency spent more than $120 million on 40 programs aimed at upgrading security measures that hail from an era when hijackers with metal handguns and knives were the threat. Now, systems must detect a few ounces of plastic explosive rolled out flat to look like a suitcase lining.

Quantum Magnetics Inc. in San Diego used $600,000 of FAA money to develop a "sniffer" based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) medical technology. It emits radio waves that stimulate only the cigar- or disk-shaped nuclei common in molecules of explosives. Says Quantum Chairman Lowell J. Burnett: "We actually detect the explosive," not substances with a high nitrogen content, which might or might not be bombs.

"IRONIC." After Thermedics Inc. in Woburn, Mass., got $7 million from the FAA and another $7 million from the State Dept., it came up with a gadget that can find just a few molecules of explosive left on a terrorist's shoes or hands. Ninety of these $165,000 devices are in use at 40 airports in 11 foreign countries. The FAA has been testing them for two years. "It's ironic," says Thermedics President John W. Wood Jr. "If you want to be screened with the latest in U.S. explosive-detection technology, you need to fly out of a European airport."

Vivid Technologies Inc., also in Woburn, has a twin-beam X-ray system that excites molecules to determine the atomic composition of objects in a bag. They are in service at 20 European airports. Pittsburgh's Mine Safety Appliances Co., which makes mine-gas detectors, has a prototype of what it claims is the fastest nose in the West--developed jointly with Siberia's Institute of Design Engineering, which pioneered the bomb-detection technology used by the KGB. And AS&E, in addition to its explosive detector, has adapted its X-ray technology for body scans. It provides Superman-type vision to spot thin plastic bombs and plastic weapons concealed under clothing (photo). That amounts to a virtual strip search, but AS&E is betting that Americans will trade off modesty for safety.

Travelers might also be willing to pay a couple of extra bucks for more security. Several congressmen favor a small surcharge on airline tickets to subsidize new baggage-inspection systems, just as a similar flying tax funded the modernization at Customs. It could not come too soon for David M. Pillor, senior vice-president of InVision. "We're willing to spend $1 per ticket on customs and immigration, and 50 cents a ticket on agricultural screening to look for apples--but nothing for this?" Makes you wonder about Washington's priorities.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.