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Rating U.S. Readiness for Aircraft Threats

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This morning's breaking news: British authorities announced today that they've uncovered an alleged plot to blow up passenger aircraft flying from Britain to the U.S. The plan involved liquid explosives smuggled in carry-on luggage. To learn how well prepared U.S. airports are to deal with similar threats, we called aviation security analyst Charles Slepian. Good morning.

Mr. CHARLES SLEPIAN (Aviation Security Analyst, Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Since 9/11 how much has the federal government focused on the risk of explosives on aircraft and, most particularly, I guess, those that can be carried in in hand luggage?

Mr. SLEPIAN: Well, clearly not enough. But the focus has been redirected and the current head of the TSA announced, as long ago as last year, that they are going to redirect their efforts and make bombing of aircraft their number one priority. So I think that's a good step in that direction. And we need some new technology in airports which can determine whether or not there's explosives present. And we still have not made enough progress with regard to that.

MONTAGNE: Do U.S. airports currently screen for liquid explosives?

Mr. SLEPIAN: Well, they will for awhile. And there are some items that are on the prohibited list which would fall into that category. But as a general rule, we are not screening for liquid explosives that could be carried on inside -into the cabin of the aircraft in your carry-on luggage or on your person.

We haven't been doing it for the last couple of years, although you may remember a few years ago, we were going so far as to examine infant formula before a mother could get on board an airplane with a child and would have to be, actually, consumed at the screening station. And we seem to have moved from that and now we're headed back in that direction, and I think properly so.

MONTAGNE: And you know, of course, there's huge pieces of equipment that we all go through when we travel. What kind of equipment would be needed to put in place to screen for this threat?

Mr. SLEPIAN: Well, let me first kind of categorize the equipment that you're talking about as visual equipment. What we use in the airports today is equipment which gives the screener an opportunity to look inside a container and try to find something that looks like an explosive.

What we really need is the equipment which does a chemical analysis of what's inside the container and then tells you whether it is an explosive. And there is such equipment available.

One example of it is being used by the Pennsylvania Transit Authority. They use a piece of equipment which actually bombards a suspect container with neutrons. The neutrons then send back a signal and it's interpreted by the software -tells you whether or not there's a bomb present. That's the kind of thing we need in our airports and we simply don't have it.

MONTAGNE: And what about today, and tomorrow, and the coming few days? What kinds of new security measures can passengers expect to see?

Mr. SLEPIAN: Well, I think they're going to be two things taking place. One, we're going to start using more seriously, behavior profiling, which had been announced about six months ago by the head of TSA. And there are certain profiles that the Israelis really have developed, put in place, where people who are, perhaps suspect, will be identified and further questioned and further searched.

And secondly, they're going to be much more stringent with your carry-on and even your checked baggage in terms of how they examine it. And so travelers would be well-advised when packing their carry-on bags to make sure that it's very easy to determine what's inside. If it looks complicated, if you got a mass of wires in there, for instance, you're going to delay everybody else in line.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. Charles Slepian is an aviation security analyst with Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.