Airplane Security Gone to the Dogs

April 26, 2008—

King is fit to be employee of the month. He loves going to work. He's confident, energetic, driven and flexible. He handles himself well in large crowds. He's a quick learner. And he's got a good nose for sniffing out trouble and responding quickly to problems on the job.

King is also a dog -- and a model employee of the Transportation Security Administration.

"He's trained to work in the environment around the airport and to find explosive odors," said King's handler, Nathan Chase. "These are explosive odors in cargo, parcels or baggage that is destined for passenger aircraft."

King and Chase are part of a new program that pairs a TSA employee with a bomb-sniffing dog to search cargo bound for passenger planes. This is the first time TSA is using its own inspectors as dog handlers. The first 12 teams of dogs and their handlers, which includes King and Chase, are being deployed in April and May at Miami, Los Angeles' LAX, New York's JFK, and Washington's Dulles airports.

If King sits down, Chase knows he's sniffed out an explosive odor. In response, Chase can pull him out of the area, coordinate with local police, cordon off and evacuate the surroundings, and call in a team to respond.

"Canines are a great bomb detection capability," said TSA administrator Kip Hawley. "First off, they all do a great job at detecting bombs. Second, they're very mobile. You can move them anywhere, including an airport environment, mass transit environment, and they're extremely flexible in the way we can use them."

Dogs like King are raised at the TSA's canine facility at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. All the puppies raised and reared there are named for people who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

King is named for Bobby King, a New York City firefighter who died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thirty-six year old King was married with three children. He wasn't supposed to be at work that day.

"I met King the dog last night and I was absolutely thrilled," said Bobby King's mother, Audrey King, who added that the canine's feisty personality reminded her of her own son.

"I think that's a great honor for anyone that lost someone to have a dog named after them. It's a great legacy for them in the future," Audrey King added.

At TSA, officials hope the dogs will leave a legacy of security and teamwork.

Uninspected air cargo that travels in the hold beneath travelers' seats has been of great concern in recent years. While most air cargo doesn't land on passenger planes, some does -- and very little of it is screened. By 2010, Congress is requiring the TSA to screen 100 percent of that cargo. The agency plans to use the canine teams to do so, in addition to other screening methods.

TSA will train hundreds of canine teams over the next few years. Hawley said the dogs cost roughly $50,000 each, but considering the high price of buying and maintaining technology, they're a good investment.

Scott Thomas, program manager at TSA's Canine Breeding and Development Center, said the best four-legged graduates are those who, like King, had mothers and fathers raised in the program.

"Rambunction, coupled with a really good nose, coupled with a desire to search -- those are the qualities we look for," Thomas said.

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