WASHINGTON – A passenger's stick of dynamite on a flight from Argentina to Houston exposed a weak link in aviation security: International airports are not always as secure as those in the United States.
U.S. and Argentine authorities were investigating how the explosive made it onto the airplane in a college student's checked bag. The dynamite was discovered during a baggage search in an inspection station at Bush Intercontinental Airport shortly after a Continental Airlines flight landed Friday.
Officials said terrorism was not involved and that the student said he works in mining and often handles explosives.
The head of the Transportation Security Administration said the government is aware of the potential problem posed by international airports and is taking steps to fix it.
"We are focused on getting a base level of security around the world," Kip Hawley said in an interview to air Sunday on C-SPAN. "We'll put in additional measures where we think we need to."
Airline passengers traveling from U.S. and British airports are now barred from bringing onboard any liquids and gels after an alleged terrorist plot was broken up in Britain. Authorities said the terrorists planned to use liquid explosives to blow up as many as 10 U.S.-bound airplanes simultaneously.
There have been several attempts to destroy airplanes with bombs in checked baggage. In 1988, 270 people died in the air and on the ground when a bomb in a checked bag exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Many countries use bomb-detection equipment for checked baggage that does not meet U.S. standards, according to a report last year by the U.S. Homeland Security Department.
"Checkpoint and checked baggage security measures have been radically improved in the U.S. since 9/11 and similar levels of improvements are essential in the rest of the world," the report said. "From the U.S. perspective, we are particularly concerned about security on flights inbound to our nation, but the worldwide fight against terrorism argues for making improvements universal."
It was not immediately clear what kind of bomb screening equipment is used in Buenos Aires Airport in Argentina. But Bob Hesselbein, the national security committee chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said Saturday the equipment used in the U.S. would have detected a stick of dynamite.
"It will identify chemicals common to dynamite," Hesselbein said.
A U.N. group, the International Civil Aviation Organization, sets basic security standards for civil aviation worldwide. These standards generally are lower than those for U.S. airports.
The organization plans to meet in Montreal in September to discuss raising the standards for international aviation security, including the kinds of liquids that should be allowed on airliners.
Hesselbein recently attended the group's security conference in the Dominican Republic.
"Airports in South and Central America are complaining they have to comply with TSA standards," Hesselbein said. "The greatest challenge they confront is not having the funds."
Hawley said in the past few weeks he has talked to many of his counterparts in other countries — including Britain and the European Union — about tighter security standards.
Hawley said TSA inspectors visit international airports that have U.S.-bound flights and audit their security systems and procedures against the U.N. organization's benchmarks.
In the past year, TSA inspectors determined that an airport in Bali and one in Haiti fell short of the standards.
Airlines and airports were required to tell passengers traveling between the United States and the airports in Bali and Haiti that there were security lapses. The requirement was lifted in July for Haiti.
The agency did not return requests Saturday for information about its response to the incident in Argentina.