Ready for takeoff

IT companies prepare to meet demand for improving airport screening systems

The aggressive schedule Congress set to improve aviation security, including a crucial deadline for baggage screening by year's end, has ratcheted up demand for systems integrators that can provide services and products to the new Transportation Security Administration.

President Bush's fiscal 2003 budget provides first year funding of $4.8 billion for the agency, called TSA, which was established by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 signed into law Nov. 19.

The TSA budget includes $2.2 billion in funding for explosive detection systems to screen all checked baggage at the nation's 429 airports. The systems must be in place by Dec. 31.

Funding for the screening will be partially derived from a $2.50 surcharge applied to each leg of a passenger's flight.

"The expenses are going to be very high, and no one has a real grip on it yet," said Chip Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives of Alexandria, Va.

Meanwhile, Congress already has authorized $1.5 billion to cover direct costs incurred by airports for compliance with security measures enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration or the TSA after Sept. 11.

The upshot is that the nation's airports will need assistance retrofitting the explosive detection systems in existing facilities, industry officials said. Airports also will seek help building systems to bolster access control to secure areas and developing biometric technologies for passenger screening.

The TSA, which began overseeing aviation security Feb. 17, has established pilot programs for security at 20 airports throughout the nation to test and evaluate new technologies and strengthen access control.

While there is some overlap between the security needs of airports and airlines, such as passenger screening, the airlines have their own set of priorities, including identifying those who are authorized to carry firearms, moving personnel quickly and efficiently through security checkpoints, and achieving pre-Sept. 11 processing times for passenger security, officials said.

Two companies, Electronic Data Systems Corp. and PricewaterhouseCoopers, intend to announce March 5 a strategic alliance targeting aviation security. Although contractors are not sure yet whether solicitations will be issued by airport authorities or the federal government, they are preparing to respond immediately upon the release of requests for proposals.

"We are developing solutions ahead of the requirements from the federal government because of the aggressive time frame" for the new security measures, said David Abel, a partner and head of the federal civilian transportation practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers of New York.

Integrating different technologies and products will be key to preventing terrorism, he said. "There are a number of solutions that can be looked at to solve a particular need, but there is not an integration of those into a cohesive, integrated process," Abel said.

Before Sept. 11, airport security was the exclusive realm of airports and commercial air carriers. But the passage of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act and the subsequent creation of the TSA has blurred the lines of responsibility, said Jeff Planton, a senior vice president with EDS of Plano, Texas.

"We are still trying to identify who the purchaser will be," Planton said.

Barclay said Sept. 11 has forced the commercial aviation industry to shift from a level of security befitting a public transportation system to that more closely resembling a military operation to protect passengers from potential terrorists.

"The airlines are bleeding cash every day," Barclay said. "We have to get convenience back into the system, [and] technology is a key player in getting that done."

Dave Zolet, vice president and general manager of civil systems for TRW Inc. of Cleveland, said TRW has developed computer simulation programs that allow airports to track the flow of passengers and baggage through various security checkpoints. The computer modeling is already being deployed to help airports meet the new federal baggage screening mandates, he said.

For example, TRW in February signed a contract with the Jacksonville International Airport in Florida to provide computer simulation to improve its bagging screening system. The simulation can help the airport decide not only where to deploy the systems, but also how many systems it needs.

"When you talk about buying an expensive [explosive detection] system, you want to take a hard look at how you are going to use the system in the real world," Zolet said.

Emily Brunner, a spokeswoman for L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. of New York, a company that makes explosive detection systems, said the company's machines cost roughly $1 million each.

EDS, another integrator eyeing aviation security opportunities, is focusing on areas such as security assessments, passenger identification and baggage screening, said Robert Nabors, a senior vice president for EDS' U.S. government solutions.

Some of the work that EDS envisions doing for the federal government and airports would be similar to a frequent traveler identification system the company installed at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport.

A groundswell of support is building throughout industry and the government for a "trusted traveler" program that would assess passengers according to their level of security risk, said Robert Atkinson, vice president and director of the New Economy Project at the Progressive Policy Institute of Washington.

Such a program would use a smart card with a biometric feature to confirm travelers' identities, Atkinson said. Integrators would design the overall system architecture and involve biometric manufacturers through alliances and partnerships.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has endorsed the concept, telling the nation's governors the country needs a trusted traveler program to improve passenger flow at the nation's airports, the Washington Post reported Feb. 25.

The American Association of Airport Executives is pushing for a version of the trusted traveler program, called "passport plus," that would build an initial database from the 65 million people in the country who have U.S. passports, Barclay said.

In addition to providing improved security for the nation's commercial aviation system, a trusted traveler program would help airports cut costs, Atkinson said. It would do this by prescreening passengers through an automated process that would make it possible for passengers to bypass traditional ticket counters, and even pay for parking and other associated costs by using their smart travel card.

"This would be a big money saver for the industry," Atkinson said. "There would be huge economic benefits that would ripple through the economy."

Staff Writer William Welsh can be reached at

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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