Monday, June 03, 2002

Airports ask for security delay

Many say they can't meet year-end deadline

By James Pilcher,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is one of 39 major U.S. facilities officially warning the Transportation Department that the Dec. 31 deadline for mandatory screening of all checked baggage cannot be met.

        But despite the recent letter signed by airport executives including the local airport's director of aviation, Bob Holscher, the Transportation Department is not backing off.

        “Thirty-nine airport managers don't believe that the equipment can be manufactured or installed in time to meet that deadline,” Mr. Holscher said Sunday.

        The letter, dated May 29, was sent to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and asked him to pressure Congress to push back the deadline, set forth in the November 2001 law passed to fortify aviation security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

        Mr. Mineta has maintained that, while it will be difficult, several types of machines can be in place before 2003 to check an estimated 1 billion bags a year for explosives. He has said some airports would get the large, $1 million explosive detection systems that can be as big as cars, and others could use smaller, less expensive trace detection systems.

        Yet over the past month, airports have been warning that attempts to meet the deadline will disrupt operations and could delay travel.

        “We're not sure airports will be able to operate on Jan. 1,” said Larry Cox, chief executive of the airport in Memphis, Tenn.

        The letter warns about “harried installations” of explosives detection machines in airports that have little space for new equipment. The changes “promise to disrupt passenger flows and further increase the hassle of air travel,” the letter said.

        Transportation Department spokesman Chet Lunner said Sunday that while Mr. Mineta understands concerns, he “is dead set about meeting the letter of the law, and we will.”

        “The law doesn't give us an option of relaxing the deadlines,” Mr. Lunner said.

        A congressional leader on aviation issues said Sunday he thinks the government might need to reconsider the deadline.

        Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, said that acquiring the equipment and hiring screeners by the end of the year will be a challenge. He said Congress probably will reconsider the issue after fall elections.

        “I think there will be a major crisis, and the Congress will revisit it,” he said.

        Cincinnati airport officials, who have yet to hear when machines could arrive here, have been considering hiring a structural engineer to determine whether the facility's floors could support a large machine, which can weigh as much as five tons.

        The letter was signed by officials at airports that handle a majority of the country's air traffic, including Atlanta, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Memphis, Metro Washington, Orlando, Phoenix, San Francisco, St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C.

       The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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