WASHINGTON -- The government wants to see whether machines designed to detect explosives in airline passengers' luggage also can be used to scan other cargo -- from mail to commercial goods -- transported in the holds of commercial planes.
A two-month test started this week at three of the nation's busiest airports: Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and Miami International Airport, the Transportation Security Administration said yesterday.
TSA chief David Stone said the test ''enhances our security regime at these crucial shipping hubs."
The agency will inspect a certain percentage of cargo, but won't say exactly how much.
All air passengers and their bags are screened for bombs and weapons before they are allowed to board. Though some cargo is randomly checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, the vast majority is not inspected.
The TSA's ''known shipper" program requires air cargo companies to register with the government. Passenger air carriers aren't allowed to accept cargo from companies that aren't on a TSA-approved list.
Critics say that doesn't do nearly enough to ensure the safety of passengers.
''Anything short of screening 100 percent of the cargo that's transported on passenger planes leaves open a dangerous security loophole that can be exploited by terrorists determined to attack America," said Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, who cosponsored a bill to require screening of all air cargo on passenger planes.
The Sept. 11 commission set up by Congress to investigate the attacks said in its final report that the government needs to do more to ensure air cargo is safe.
A key aspect of the test will be to see whether checking cargo can be done quickly enough to keep planes and shipping companies on schedule.
During the TSA tests, the explosives detection systems will be used to check some loose air cargo -- cartons and packages that could be consolidated into a pallet or a container -- before it is loaded onto passenger planes operated by Alaska, American, Delta, and United Airlines.