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Close Remaining Gaps in Aviation Security

While the primary vulnerabilities that enabled the September 11 hijackings to occur have been addressed, terrorists have gone “back to the future” and are once again trying to smuggle bombs on board aircraft.

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While the primary vulnerabilities that enabled the September 11 hijackings to occur have been addressed, terrorists have gone “back to the future” and are once again trying to smuggle bombs on board aircraft. While the 3-1-1 rule that limits liquids that can be placed in carry-on luggage is a reasonable interim response to the 2006 British liquid bomb plot, checkpoint personnel cannot pull shampoo, toothpaste, and baby food from bags forever.

Only a modest percentage of air cargo shipments are subject to targeted or random inspections despite the Transportation Security Administration’s own assessment that a bomb smuggling attempt is very likely. Cuts and reprogramming of science and technology funding committed to high-explosives countermeasures—an example of DHS’s chronic underfunding of current operations—need to be reversed. TSA must substantially increase the resources devoted to air cargo security, only $55 million and 300 agents at present. Its current plans to fulfill a 2007 congressional air cargo mandate by certifying most cargo as secure and inspecting the rest are backwards.

Shoulder-fired missiles or MANPADS have been used in attempts to shoot down commercial aircraft 35 times since 1978, but retrofitting existing commercial aircraft with additional protections is not economically feasible; it would cost an estimated $10 billion—at $1 million per aircraft—plus hundreds of millions per year to maintain. Still, an aggressive research program is necessary. More needs to be done regarding general aviation, which involves 200,000 airplanes at more than 19,000 airports, but perfect security is simply not possible. But better use of watch lists for passenger screening is necessary and should be accelerated.

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