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"Congress examines aircraft security"

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Congress examines aircraft security

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers are warning that the Transportation Security
Administration is leaving airplanes vulnerable to sabotage by terrorists who
may have access to the planes in repair shops overseas.

TSA chief Kip Hawley faces questions Tuesday on the agency's failure to
write security regulations for repair shops as Congress ordered nearly four
years ago. 

Hawley will testify before House and Senate panels looking broadly at
aviation security.

"This is an extreme vulnerability," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. 

A classified Transportation Department report found that a senior technician
at a shop in Singapore worked for al-Qaida and in late 2001 photographed
U.S. aircraft as potential targets, McCaskill said. No additional
information was made public.

The worry is that a terrorist could plant a bomb in an airplane and later
detonate it while passengers are on board, said aviation-security consultant
Douglas Laird, former security chief at Northwest Airlines. 

"They could take door panels off and pack explosives in there, and nobody
would know," he said.

Airlines send planes to shops overseas and in the United States for work
ranging from cleaning seats and changing tires to overhauling engines. Some
repair shops are inside airport boundaries and well-secured but others are
in industrial areas with less security. The Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) certifies most shops, which operate independently of airlines.

Some repair facilities are operated by large manufacturers such as Pratt &
Whitney and Boeing. Others are small businesses, in countries such as China,
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

TSA spokesman Christopher White said, "We don't consider foreign repair
stations a serious concern for passengers." 

Airplanes returning from shops are inspected by airlines, and crews check
the planes before, during and after each flight.

As airlines increasingly rely on shops and close their own repair
facilities, lawmakers are concerned that repairs are not monitored by
federal regulators. The FAA licenses 4,227 repair shops in the United States
and 694 overseas to work on planes operated by U.S. carriers.

The Republican-led Congress ordered the TSA in late 2003 to write security
rules for the shops by August 2004. The agency was to inspect the overseas
shops by February 2006 and order problems corrected.

But the TSA has not issued regulations, drawing rebuke from lawmakers. "This
is a problem and we need a plan to deal with it," said Rep. Peter DeFazio,
D-Ore. "We don't know who the people are working at these repair stations."

White said the TSA has focused more on preventing terrorists from carrying
bombs on board airplanes.

Congress intensified pressure on the TSA in August when it said no new
overseas repair shops could be licensed to work on U.S. planes if the
inspections are not completed by February 2009.

Barring new overseas shops would make it harder and costlier for airlines to
get repairs done, said Michael Romanowski, a vice president at the Aerospace
Industries Association.

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