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The Air Up There

MANY TRAVELERS WORRY that the recirculated air aboard jet planes spreads germs from other passengers. Behind the scenes, security professionals worry that terrorists might use those same ventilation systems to spread deadly chemical or biological agents.

In fact, the U.S. air transportation system is an attractive target for a chemical or biological attack, according to the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Assessment of Security Technologies for Transportation; however, there are no “specific strategies, approaches, or procedures” developed by the air transportation system to defend against such attacks.

In a publication of the National Academy of Sciences, the NRC also points to obstacles in setting up such a defense system. One major problem is that no federal agency has been assigned responsibility for doing so. In addition, although researchers, manufacturers, and the military are working furiously on detection systems, “it is very difficult to independently evaluate all of the performance claims for these technologies,” the authors write.

The committee does, however, offer four recommendations for improving the situation. First, it calls for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to integrate chem/bio defense strategies into its broader security plan.

Second, it suggests that the TSA form a high-level task force to perform threat assessments of “air transportation spaces,” to study models of airflow and dispersal of simulated agents within planes, and to help facilities create threat defense strategies.

The third recommendation is for the TSA to study the chem/bio research programs of other agencies and “consider supporting a vendor-independent testing capability in order to verify performance claims made for chemical/biological detection systems.”

Finally, the NRC committee recommends that the TSA pursue a defensive strategy that does not depend only on technological detection of threats—by which time it may already be too late to prevent the attack.