A coalition of companies that represents the security detection industry is urging the U.S. government to spend nearly $4 billion in the coming years on aviation security technology that would reduce physical interactions between Transportation Security Officers and the traveling public, increase security, bolster funding predictability for themselves and their suppliers, and help boost the flagging aviation sector amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic by enhancing the confidence of travelers in the safety and security of air transportation.
A new report by the Security Manufacturers Coalition (SMC) advocates for specific funding levels in a number of technology areas, including $1.6 billion over the next five years to complete the acquisition of new computed tomography (CT)-based systems for scanning carry-on bags at 2,400 U.S. airport checkpoint lanes and $1.5 billion to upgrade and replace around 1,000 explosive detection systems (EDS) used to automatically scan checked bags for explosives.
In addition to a big uptick in support for checkpoint CT and EDS systems, the SMC is recommending Congress provide spending for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on technologies to enable remote screening at checkpoints, for software upgrades to and replacement of Advanced Imaging Technology body scanners to significantly reduce the need for pat downs, more testing for new equipment, and virus killing technology at checkpoints such as antimicrobial coatings on baggage bins.
The roughly $3.7 billion in accelerated funding being proposed by the industry coalition would help make up for a $10.7 billion shortfall that TSA has over its five-year capital plan, Kevin Schmidt, chairman of the SMC, told Defense Daily during a telephone interview on Tuesday. That shortfall is also due to in part to the diversion of one-third of passenger security fees, amounting to about $1.3 billion annually over the past seven years, to the government’s general fund to help pay down the deficit.
The SMC is also recommending that Congress restore the diverted portion of the fee to TSA.
The TSA this year began deploying the first of 300 checkpoint CT systems being supplied by Smiths Detection under a $97 million contract awarded in 2019 and the agency is planning another competition for additional CT systems. The deployments by Smiths are expected to be finished this November.
TSA halted deployments of the CT systems for about two months as the pandemic severely slowed air travel. Schmidt, who is vice president of Government Relations for Smiths Detection, said the company continued to manufacture the systems but at a low rate. Deployments have resumed, he said.
The checkpoint CT systems, which are based on the same technology used by EDS systems, offer a number of screening benefits in a move toward a more touchless experience for travelers and screening officials at the checkpoint.
With the CT systems, passengers don’t have to remove their electronic devices from their bags and the goal is to eventually allow them to leave liquids inside their bags as well. The CT systems also provide a three-dimensional image of a bag’s contents, giving operators a better view and minimizing the need for a bag to be repositioned and rescanned or even opened for a manual inspection.
Schmidt said that another reason the SMC is advocating for the accelerated aviation security technology funding is to help original equipment manufacturers and their suppliers obtain more predictable funding, giving them more visibility into budgets and allowing them to better plan.
For instance, Smiths won the first checkpoint CT contract in the spring of 2019. But the next procurement round isn’t expected until later this year, which is challenging for the company’s competitors to stick around and compete for the next tranche of systems and makes predictability difficult for suppliers.
House appropriators in their version of the fiscal year 2021 spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security are recommending $75 million for checkpoint CT procurement and installation, an increase of $46.1 million above the TSA request. While that amount is less than what the SMC would like to see, Schmidt said the SMC understands that DHS has a number of competing priorities and he also said that if Congress passes another COVID-19-related stimulus package, there is the potential that some of TSA’s equipment needs could be addressed there.
More funding for EDS upgrades and replacement with advanced algorithms to reduce false alarms would also mean fewer secondary inspections and less contact by TSOs of personal property, the SMC says in Enhancing Security Effectiveness in a COVID-19 Contactless Environment.
TSA has been a strong advocate for the checkpoint CT systems and other technology advances at airport checkpoints. David Pekoske, the agency’s chief, recently released updated guidance for implementing TSA’s two-year old strategy aimed at achieving a “near contactless experience” at checkpoints, in part to bolster safety due to COVID-19 but also to enhance security and make it more convenient for travelers.
On its website, TSA says that more than 1,100 of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and six have died due to the virus.
The SMC, which is organized under the Airport Consultants Council, an airport trade association, typically works behind the scenes with Congress, TSA and other stakeholders. Schmidt said the new report is meant to raise the visibility of the issues affecting aviation security and the security industrial base.