The nation's largest airport security company is urging federal officials to consider mandating hand searches of most airline passengers, officials said Tuesday.
The company, Atlanta-based Argenbright, provides 40 percent of all the passenger screening at the nation's airports. A spokesman for Argenbright's parent company in Britain, Securicor, said Tuesday that the Federal Aviation Administration is seriously considering the idea.
The company made its recommendation after admitting that its metal detectors cannot spot the small knives that federal authorities banned from planes after the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings that preceded the attacks on New York and Washington.
Such searches, either with a hand-held wand or using the hand itself, would almost certainly add further delays at security checkpoints that are on higher alert than ever before.
FAA spokesman Hank Price said the agency had made no decisions or issued any rules, but is reviewing all options. Price said he could not discuss details because of national security concerns.
Rebecca Trexler, a spokeswoman for the FAA's security office, said that the office is aware of the situation but noted that backups are in place.
Even if the large metal detectors fail to detect knives when passengers walk through, screeners can still detect anything metal with hand-held wands.
She said she could not say whether screeners would consistently use hand-held detectors.
Until the Sept. 11 airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, knives less than 4 inches long were allowed on planes. The FAA banned all knives the day after the attacks. Investigators think that small knives and box-cutters were used to hijack four jets and turn them into flying bombs.
Mike Rutter, a director of Securicor, said Argenbright discovered the problem with metal detectors when it ran tests immediately after the FAA's order to ban knives.
"We cannot pick them up on common calibration," he said, referring to the normal settings for walk-through metal detectors.
Security experts said the detectors can be adjusted to be more sensitive to metal, but can create more false alarms and delays.
Rutter said the Argenbright officials, who have met with the FAA, were led to believe that the FAA would soon issue guidelines on hand searches of passengers.
Experts differ on what can slip through metal detectors.
"For every single instrument that's designed for the airport, there is always a lower limit of detectability," said Tom Hartwick, chairman of several National Academy of Sciences studies into airport security technology. "If you made a knife just a quarter-inch long, I can almost guarantee you it can't be picked up."
Hartwick said a lot depends on the training of operators and machine settings. Operators are often low-paid, undertrained and inexperienced, numerous government reports have found.
"The wand is quite effective," said physicist Jack Crow, director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Fla. "That is going to pick up anything as small as a penny."
But he said some small metal might get through the overhead metal detectors, depending on calibration. More important, he said, readily available nonmetal ceramic knives can pass through metal detectors.
If the security companies set the overhead metal detectors at their most sensitive level, they could find small metal knives, said Wayne Black, a former Florida law enforcement officer who runs a Fort Lauderdale aviation security consulting firm.
But passengers and eventually airline companies -- which hire the security firms -- are likely to complain about increased delays, Black said.
Black and others said that hand searches may be needed.
Even so, hand searches alone may not be enough, said Cathal Flynn, the FAA's security chief from 1993 to 2000, who now is a consultant with Argenbright.
"A combination of the use of the metal detector with the use of the hand to feel into clothing or through the clothing to see what might be causing the alarm can be effective," Flynn said. "But for other objects, it comes down to having to see."
Meanwhile, President Bush and congressional leaders are looking at putting more armed sky marshals on airliners to make travelers more confident that they will be safe from terrorists.
The president also is planning to make airlines secure doors between the cockpit and cabin on all jetliners but is not inclined to allow pilots to carry weapons or make federal workers of all security personnel at airports, Bush administration officials said Tuesday.
Instead, Bush will seek to give the FAA more oversight of private security companies, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity, and he will order a more robust effort to cross-check information on their personnel with law enforcement databases.
The president plans to announce his airline safety proposals Thursday in Chicago, one official said. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., and Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., have been invited to attend.
Sky marshals already are being used on many flights, and the FAA is training more of them.
An Air Line Pilots Association's call to allow pilots to carry firearms in cockpits was received with mixed enthusiasm Tuesday on Capitol Hill. The FAA prohibits pilots from being armed.
"I don't think we need pilots to be trying to be security officers and pilots," Gephardt said. "I think they have enough to get the plane to safety."