NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Airport Bomb-Detection Devices Rare and Expensive

January 16, 2002

The Bush administration has set an end-of-the-year deadline for deploying thousands of bomb-detection machines to all airports around the country. But aviation-security specialists doubt that goal will be met -- not only because the devices are complex and expensive, but also because few are even available yet.

  • Two months after President Bush signed a law mandating the equipment, the government has bought fewer than two dozen machines -- and it isn't even sure yet how it will afford the $5 billion for the rest.
  • The estimated 2,200 machines needed aren't even available yet, and only two companies have been federally certified for their products.
  • Currently, only a tiny fraction of checked luggage is examined for explosives.
  • While more costly than other detection methods, the machines are believed to be less error prone.

Many of the machines are as large as pickup trucks and weigh several tons. Just 161 are in use today at roughly 50 airports.

At issue is just what kind of machines the government should buy. The explosive-detection machines certified now are notoriously slow and prone to false alarms. But they are capable of capturing suspicious objects in detailed pictures similar to those of a hospital CT scan.

Alternatives might not provide images as detailed, or process bags as quickly, but they could at least help achieve the goal of 100 percent screening by year's end.

Source: Stephen Power, "Airport Bomb-Detection Faces Big Hurdles," Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2002.

For text (WSJ subscribers)


Browse more articles on Government Issues