Country's Air Transport Association wants the screening process to be nationalised

Argument has begun over who will pay for increased airport security in the wake of the terrorist attack on the USA. Debate is focusing on whether the government should take over responsibility from the airlines for passenger screening, seen as the last line of defence against hijack and terrorism.

The Air Transport Association (ATA), representing the major US airlines, has urged the Federal Aviation Administration to "look seriously at nationalising the air passenger screening process".

US transportation secretary Norman Mineta admits "screening is a problem we must get resolved", but he does not advocate requiring all airport screeners to be federal employees, with higher wages and better benefits. "I'm not sure the US Congress would pay the additional costs," he says, while airlines are not in a position to assume the extra spending because of their "shaky finances".

Airport security was increased to its highest level since 1991 in the wake of the 11 September attack. Kerbside and off-airport check-in was discontinued; only ticketed passengers are allowed through security checkpoints; carriage of any knife or cutting tool is banned (knives with up to 4in (100mm) blades were permitted until now); and all aircraft are being searched before boarding. The police presence at airports has been stepped up and random deployment of armed sky marshals on US flights is being expanded.

The Air Line Pilots Association, meanwhile, has called for the cockpit door on aircraft to be designed to prevent entry by hijackers.

On the ground, there are calls for the USA to increase airport security to the level provided by Israel. Speaking to Air Transport Intelligence reporter Aaron Karp at the Airports Council International meeting in Montreal last week, Israel Airport Authority director Yomtob Sabah said the quality and training of staff were paramount. Security officials are aged between 21 and 25 and should have a high IQ. Training and regular rotation of duties are also essential, said Sabah.

By comparison USA screeners are paid close to minimum wage and receive minimal training, resulting in a turnover exceeding 100% a year at major US airports, according to a June 2000 General Accounting Office report. The report found that security personnel in five European countries received higher wages and lengthier training, resulting in better performance and turnover as low as 5%.

Long-awaited regulations requiring certification of screening companies are about to be introduced by the FAA. The rule is tied to deployment of an automated screener testing system called threat image projection (TIP) that runs on checkpoint X-ray machines. TIP randomly projects threat images to test screeners performance.

The new rule is unlikely to quell demands for increased security. The airline industry has so far resisted pressure for 100% bag-to-passenger matching on domestic flights, citing the potential for delays. Instead an automated passenger prescreening programme is used to select checked baggage for explosives detection, screening or bag matching. The programme, called CAPS, was designed to eliminate racial profiling from passenger screening, but still attracted such criticism that the Israeli method of intensive questioning, background checks and physical searches would be impossible in the USA.

Mineta admits that the Department of Transportation is looking again at bag matching and passenger profiling. Alternatives to full federalisation include making the FAA responsible for selecting contractors, with airlines continuing to carry the cost. Another proposal, cited in the Gore Commission report but not pursued, is the creation of a non-profit airport security corporation, funded by airlines.

Meanwhile the ATA protests: "The airlines are not the 82nd Airborne. They catch the insane, they catch the sloppy and they catch the ignorant, but they won't catch sophisticated terrorists."

Source: Flight International