Engineering problems will cause as many as 35 airports to miss the Dec. 31 deadline to screen all passenger baggage, including some big airports, Transportation Security Administration chief James Loy said Tuesday.
Those airports may include Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and three California airports, said members of the Senate Transportation Committee who heard Loy's testimony about aviation security one year after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Loy advocated granting individual waivers to airports that can't meet the deadline and recommended that intensive searches by hand and bomb-sniffing dogs be used until bomb detection machines are installed. That can't be done unless Congress agrees to spend millions more on transportation security and lifts a cap of 45,000 employees at TSA.
As an example of engineering problems, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said McCarran will be able to finish a new power station needed for the bomb detection machines only three months after the deadline.
A Transportation Department spokesman said airports that don't meet the deadline will have as close to 100 percent baggage screening as humanly possible. Airport officials have expressed great concern about the length of lines that might result from screening all bags before bomb detection systems are in place.
Loy said TSA shared the airport managers' concerns about the delays: "I don't want the lines to be out in the parking lot and down the street," he said.
Loy said he supported a program designed to streamline airport security for frequent fliers, many of whom are business travelers.
The steep decline in business travel, partly because of delays caused by new airport security measures imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has contributed to the airline industry's staggering financial problems.
"I am convinced that we balance the needs of security with common sense for those who agree to register with the program and submit to a detailed background check," Loy told the Senate Commerce Committee. It was the administration's most detailed comments yet on the concept, which was initially opposed by transportation planners because of potential security risks.
Lawmakers may consider whether to extend the deadline for airports.
The TSA hired more than 22,000 new passenger screeners in August, agency spokesman Leonardo Alcivar said. Congress ordered the government last year to take over screening of air travelers from private contractors and to hire its own workers for the job.
"We said all along we will do this," Alcivar said. "It can and it will be done."
The administration has scrambled to meet a series of congressional deadlines, but the year-end deadline for screening baggage posed the biggest challenge.
In August, the Transportation Department's inspector general described the requirement as "unprecedented and monumental" and questioned whether enough machines could be produced and enough employees hired to operate them in time.
Managers of 133 airports, which handle three-fourths of the nation's air travelers, asked the Senate in August to extend the Dec. 31 luggage-screening deadline to avoid major air traffic problems.
The House voted 217-211 in July to move it back a year.
The administration said it is making every effort to meet the luggage-screening deadline but is stymied because Congress cut its budget request this year from $4.4 billion to $3.85 billion.
Airports have several ways of making sure baggage doesn't carry bombs, including van-sized explosive detection systems that use X-ray technology and wands that detect trace residue of explosives.
According to the inspector general, 217 of the bomb-detection systems and 275 of the wand-like trace machines were up and running in 59 airports by Aug. 1. More than 1,000 big machines and 5,600 wands still needed to be installed by the end of the year.
The Transportation Security Administration said some airports will need flexibility to satisfy the requirement but would not say how many.
"There will still be screening of luggage," Alcivar said. "The question is, `How do they do it?"' A combination of sniffer dogs and hand searches along with passenger matches for all checked bags will be used, he said.
Todd Hauptli, spokesman for the American Association of Airport Executives, said two or three dozen airports probably won't make the deadline.
"They don't have enough people, they don't have enough equipment, and they don't have enough time," Hauptli said.
The approximately 27,000 passenger screeners hired by the end of August represent 82 percent of the 33,000 screeners needed, according to the inspector general, who said only 4,400 screeners had been hired by Aug. 7.