September 26, 2008

Luggage Containers Could Shield Jets

By Thomas Frank

WASHINGTON -- The government is considering the first bomb-resistant luggage container that could prevent a small suitcase bomb from crashing a jet.

A new 5-foot-by-5-foot Kevlar container holds dozens of suitcases and can protect large planes from small suitcase bombs that slip past airport luggage scanners, said Howard Fleisher, deputy director of the Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Lab.

Suitcase bombs have worried aviation officials since one blew up Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The bombs can get past security when they have explosive material that's too small to trigger an alarm from a luggage scanner.

The Kevlar idea faces tough obstacles. The Transportation Security Administration said it will not buy any containers because Congress gave it no money for them, and it will not require airlines to use them. TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said the agency is in the process of certifying the devices as beneficial so that airlines can buy them.

That's not likely. "Carriers won't pay for them" because of problems such as the container's 265-pound weight and $18,000 cost, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

The resistance might leave the devices shelved, said Robert Fu, a top engineer at container-maker Telair International of California. "We can do all this work for 15-20 years and have something that potentially saves lives. However, it's going to be probably left on the trophy rack," Fu said.

Raul Radovitzky, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology blast-protection expert, said the containers "would be extremely helpful" because they could hold luggage or cargo coming from countries with terrorist ties.

Aviation-security consultant Rich Roth said luggage scanners installed at airports in 2002 would have detected the Flight 103 bomb. That explosive was concealed in a radio. But Roth said that luggage scanners "aren't 100%."

With hardened containers, "we really have much better security," Roth said.

The 17-year effort to develop hardened containers started after the Flight 103 bombing killed 270 people but stalled when early models were heavy and broke down during testing. Recent tests found that Telair's latest model was "as blast-resistant as new" after being used on 500 flights, Fleisher said.

Fu said Telair is working on making smaller containers for narrower passenger jets.

"If something was beneath the threshold of the detection systems and it was placed in one of these containers, it would protect the aircraft," Fleisher said.

A 2007 law requires the TSA to buy hardened containers for airlines to use when the TSA sees a need, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who helped write the law. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>