Last November, a Government Accountability Office report blasted the Transportation Security Administration for inspecting only a "very small percentage" of airline cargo. "Americans," railed Massachusetts congressman Edward Markey in response, "are playing cargo roulette every time they get on a passenger plane."
Half the hull of every passenger airliner is filled with mail and miscellaneous cargo, almost none of which is checked for explosives. It adds up to 6 billion pounds of cargo each year, and up to 11 billion pounds annually by 2016 if current projections hold. In other words, a lot of roulette. So in December 2004, the TSA granted CyTerra, a manufacturer of next-generation land-mine detectors, $1.8 million to develop two explosive-cargo detection systems. The larger of the two, known as PASS-C, will work by pressurizing each cargo container--roughly 4 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 6 feet long--to about three atmospheres, or three times sea level. When the pressure is released, the resulting blast of air is tested for molecules of explosive residue. The company claims the device will be sensitive enough to sniff deep beneath layers of packaging--and test an entire container in about a minute.
Markey has called for screening 100% of cargo by 2008. CyTerra can't make that happen (last October, CEO David Fine said the PASS-C was about nine months from its testing phase, which would still put it about four months out today). But at an estimated cost of some $500,000 per machine--about 1/30th the cost of existing systems--we can't really afford to ignore Fine's solution. Then again, by the looking-glass logic of Washington, that may just doom it completely.