Aviation Security:

FAA's Deployments of Equipment to Detect Traces of Explosives

RCED-99-32R: Published: Nov 13, 1998. Publicly Released: Dec 9, 1998.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the status of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) deployments of explosives trace detection equipment at the nation's busiest airports, focusing on: (1) the status of FAA's deployments of the trace detection equipment, including whether all of the 19 category X or 60 category 1 airports, the largest and busiest airports, are supplied with this equipment and, if not, why; (2) FAA's plans for deploying any remaining trace equipment; and (3) any problems that could affect the future deployments or operation of this equipment.

GAO noted that: (1) as of October 29, 1998, FAA had deployed 327 units of trace detection equipment at passenger checkpoints to use on carry-on bags; (2) all 19 category X airports had received trace equipment, although 3 of these airports had not received all of their planned allotment; (3) the trace equipment is generally being deployed to the busiest airports first, whether these are category X or category 1 airports; (4) FAA now plans to have the additional equipment in place by December 31, 1998; (5) according to a FAA official, a number of problems delayed the deployments of the trace detection equipment: (a) reliability and operational problems with the equipment had to be corrected; (b) FAA had to delay further procurements while testing the equipment to determine if it could detect a specific additional type of explosives material; and (c) FAA had to use fiscal year 1998 funds initially planned for purchasing trace detection equipment to instead install other equipment designed to screen checked baggage for explosives; (6) FAA plans to purchase and deploy approximately 104 additional units of trace detection equipment for use on carry-on bags to complete the deployments to checkpoints at category X and category 1 airports by December 31, 1998; (7) final decisions on the number of units to be purchased from the various vendors are expected to be made by late November 1998 by FAA's Security Equipment Integrated Product Team; (8) according to FAA, upon completion of these deployments, at least one piece of equipment will be at each checkpoint for both category X and category 1 airports, and larger checkpoints will have more; (9) these purchases will bring the total deployments of all trace equipment to 491; (10) FAA plans to spend about $10.5 million to complete these deployments; (11) several federal security managers expressed concern that the high turnover rate of security screeners could cause future problems in the operation of trace detection equipment if they did not have enough trained screeners available to operate the equipment; (12) at one airport, the federal security manager estimated that the turnover rate was about 130 percent per year, with some jobs being filled more than once during the year; (13) GAO has found the turnover rate to be even higher in other locations; and (14) GAO is looking into the factors that influence screeners' performance and the issue of screener turnover.