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U.S. Vows To Meet Security Deadline

The Bush administration restructured a key element of airport security on Wednesday, dramatically reducing plans to use $1 million scanners to detect bombs in luggage and boosting reliance on cheaper and more portable technology.

For the first time the Transportation Department provided concrete figures for the type and number of devices it will need to screen bags at 429 U.S. airports by the end of the year.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce the government plans to deploy up to 1,100 large explosive detection machines, also known as EDS, that scan bags for bombs and 4,700 so-called trace machines that zero-in on explosive residue.

"We will insist on the same high standards for all airports, small and large," Mineta said.

The government would not say if it would stick to the mixed strategy over the long term, eventually add more EDS equipment, or embrace new technologies.

"Things might change but generally speaking (the current combination) is the way we foresee it for the time being," an agency spokesman said.

But at least one EDS manufacturer believes that demand for its machines will be strong after the Dec. 31 deadline.

Trace devices cost about $40,000 each and require screeners to operate. The larger EDS equipment use computer technology to scan luggage on a conveyor and require visual confirmation of a weapon or bomb.

Previously, the government estimated it would need more than 2,000 EDS devices, which retail at roughly $1 million to make and $1 million to install, to meet the bag screening deadline. The Transportation Department is getting a "modest" price break from manufacturers for bulk orders, but officials did not reveal the discount.

Fewer than 200 EDS machines are in place at several airports, and the government recently placed firm orders for 400 more divided between two manufacturers, L-3 Communications and InVision Technologies Inc.

Plans call for other companies to make them as well to speed production and meet a congressional mandate that bomb detection equipment be in place at airports by the end of December.

Shares of InVision closed down 20 percent to $27.44 per share on Mineta's announcement. InVision, which closed at $3.27 a share the day before the Sept. 11 attacks, traded at nearly $50 per share in mid-March on prospects of an airline security windfall.

David Pillor, senior InVision vice president, said in an interview that installing 2,000 EDS machines by the end of the year was impossible and that Mineta's comments were no surprise to the company.

Pillor predicted that a major part of the long-term solution to bag screening will require heavy use of EDS technology, and that InVision would remain the dominant player.

House aviation subcommittee chairman John Mica said there was no way to produce and install enough of the big, $1 million explosive detection machines by Dec. 31.

Faced with the daunting challenge of installing EDS machines — which rival a sport utility vehicle in size — under tight time constraints, transportation officials acknowledged several weeks ago they would likely back off previous EDS estimates and use a mix of bag screening technologies.

But the Bush administration, until now, had not settled on a specific approach or given any firm idea of what bag screening might cost.

Congress demanded last week that the Transportation Department firm up numbers for explosive detection requirements before it would fund more money to buy them.

The new Transportation Security Administration has requested $4.4 billion in funding this year to pay for explosive detection technology and overhaul passenger screening operations with a federal work force.

Separately, Mineta announced the government had awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a $105 million contract to train airport screeners.

The Transportation Security Administration plans to employ roughly 30,000 screeners by the end of the year. Hundreds of them have already been hired.

The first screeners will debut at Baltimore-Washington International Airport at the end of the month, transportation officials said.

Mineta said each screener will receive a minimum of 40 hours of classroom training, five times the amount they received under the previous system run by the airlines. They will also get 60 hours of on-the-job training.

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