GAO pushes for bomb detector study

Transportation officials can do a better job of showing how much money can be saved with newer bomb detection systems, Congressional auditors said this week.

The Government Accountability Office recommends that the Homeland Security Department direct the Transportation Security Administration to do a cost-benefit analysis for installing in-line conveyor-belt explosive detection systems (EDS). GAO also called for analyzing the feasibility of replacing explosive trace detection (EDT) machines with stand-alone EDS machines at other airports.

In a report released March 15, GAO auditors wrote that TSA has made “substantial progress” in installing EDS and ETD systems in the nation’s 450 commercial airports, as mandated by Congress, but many ETD and minivan-sized EDS machines reside in lobbies, separate from airport baggage conveyor systems. This ad-hoc solution results in more screeners, a slower throughput rate per hour and more job injuries than conveyor systems, as workers must physically lug each bag to and from the stand-alone detectors, auditors found.

GAO's study did not evaluate airport security.

"This report isn’t addressing identified threats. We do have a classified report that talks about security aspects. This report is looking at the installation of these in-line systems from an economic standpoint," said Cathleen Berrick, GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues.

ETD machines, smaller and less expensive than EDS systems, use chemicals to detect traces of explosive residue. But EDS machines, which use X-rays to recognize explosive characteristics, can screen more bags per hour, making them more efficient. While 86 of 130 airports GAO surveyed either have or are planning to have at least partial in-line EDS systems, there is no designated federal funding. For airports where EDS in-line systems may not be useful, GAO recommends a cost-benefit analysis for replacing ETDs with stand-alone EDS machines.

TSA hasn’t created the business plan for Congress to show what this can save. An earlier TSA study of nine airports found that conveyor systems would save the government about $1 billion over seven years, recovering initial investment in a little over a year. Now GAO wants TSA to conduct this kind of a study on a large-scale basis, for all 450 commercial airports.

DHS, which agreed with GAO’s findings, has already begun taking action. TSA is evaluating criteria for prioritizing which airports would benefit most from the airport baggage conveyor screening system. This would likely be the 40 airports that handle between 60 and 80 percent of all checked baggage nationwide. And TSA is identifying airports that would benefit from replacing ETDs with stand-alone EDS machines. “The EDS equipment that is being considered will be surplus from the airports receiving [conveyor] systems,” said DHS Chief Financial Office Departmental GAO/OIG Liaison Acting Director Steven Pecinovsky, in a letter to GAO.

GAO previously reported that TSA had not met a congressional 2003 deadline to deploy screening technologies at all airports. From its 2001 inception through September 2004, TSA has spent 93 percent of its $2.7 billion budget to install mostly baggage screening equipment.

This week, TSA chose General Electric InVision and L-3 Communications to maintain bomb detectors in airports.

TSA on March 14 announced two separate contracts for General Electric InVision and L-3 Communications to maintain explosive detection systems in the largest U.S. airports. GE’s indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity in contract is worth up to $36 million, while L-3’s IDIQ contract has a maximum value of $28 million. Both are four and a half years long.

Earlier this month, Siemens won a four and a half year, $46.9 million deal to maintain explosive trace detection machines, X-ray machines and metal detectors at all commercial airports.

The maintenance contracts were awarded following the completion of Boeing's contract to deploy explosive detection systems and explosive trace detection systems in U.S. commercial airports. Boeing received $1.38 billion to install 1,100 explosive detection machines at major airports and 6,000 trace detection devices at commercial airports.

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