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Europe's airport security dilemma

Body scanners: You'll see them at US airports. But whether European airports will have them is up in the air.

A security official, right, prepares to scan his colleague posing inside a RapiScan full-body scanner being tried out at Manchester Airport northern England, Jan. 7, 2010. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — When the Obama administration ordered airport security ramped up after the December bombing attempt aboard an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, it allocated a billion dollars in federal funding for that effort. 

The Dutch government, stung by the failure of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to detect explosive elements on the would-be bomber, also implemented stronger security measures, with all U.S.-bound passengers now required to go through body scanners. The price tag for those machines is more than a million dollars. The amount the Dutch government is paying — so far — is zero. 

Europe is the only region in the world where airports pay for their own security measures. So the long list of additional regulations imposed since the 9/11 attacks by the European Union or individual governments — which can enact more stringent measures than the EU mandates — has cost airports a hefty sum, according to Airports Council International (ACI).

“Pre-9/11, the security costs at European airports were on average 5 to 8 percent of airport operating costs,” explained ACI's spokesman for Europe, Robert O’Meara. “Now security operations at European airports account for about 35 percent of operating costs. Every time a threat is revealed, that suddenly is a new excuse for a new layer of regulation that somebody else has to pay for.” 

Some airports are large enough and profitable enough to absorb most of the costs; others pass some portion on to airlines and passengers but still have trouble. In addition to the new expenses, O’Meara said, last year saw a loss of about 105 million air passengers, down from 1.47 billion previously. "Suddenly security has become a huge hole on the balance sheets,” he said — and that was before EU governments began looking seriously, prompted by the U.S., at requiring the use of full-body scanners, which cost $150,000 to $200,000 a pop.

Despite the enormous bill looming for the new machines, operating personnel and training at Schiphol, airport spokeswoman Mirjam Snoerwang said the scanners were on their way, as per the new government regulations. “Safety first,” she said. "We ordered [the scanners] and after we’re going to have a a discussion with the government [about] who is going to pay for the scans.”

Britain has joined the Netherlands in stepping up use of the machines, but other nations have said they will not do so without an EU-wide mandate, and cost isn't the only stumbling block.