Federal Government Airport Screening Devices Don’t Work

The federal government spent billions of dollars on screening devices that didn’t work when it took over airport security. It didn’t make us any safer, but it made us feel safer

    “After 9/11, we had to show how committed we were by spending hugely greater amounts of money than ever before, as rapidly as possible,” said Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican who is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “That brought us what we might expect, which is some expensive mistakes. This has been the difficult learning curve of the new discipline known as homeland security.”

How bad are the screening systems?

    Customs officials at Newark have nicknamed the devices “dumb sensors,” because they cannot discern the source of the radiation. That means benign items that naturally emit radioactivity – including cat litter, ceramic tile, granite, porcelain toilets, even bananas – can set off the monitors.

    Alarms occurred so frequently when the monitors were first installed that customs officials turned down their sensitivity. But that increased the risk that a real threat, like the highly enriched uranium used in nuclear bombs, could go undetected because it emits only a small amount of radiation or perhaps none if it is intentionally shielded.

    The port’s follow-up system, handheld devices that are supposed to determine what set off an alarm, is also seriously flawed. Tests conducted in 2003 by Los Alamos National Laboratory found that the handheld machines, designed to be used in labs, produced a false positive or a false negative more than half the time. The machines were the least reliable in identifying the most dangerous materials, the tests showed.

    The Transportation Security Administration bought 1,344 machines costing more than $1 million each to search for explosives in checked bags by examining the density of objects inside. But innocuous items as varied as Yorkshire pudding and shampoo bottles, which happen to have a density similar to certain explosives, can set off the machines, causing false alarms for 15 percent to 30 percent of all luggage, an agency official said. The frequent alarms require airports across the country to have extra screeners to examine these bags.

Now the government wants to go back to the drawing board and spend billions again.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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