Will Today’s Tests Improve Airport Security?

In anticipation of ever-evolving threats to airport security, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) continue to explore and test new ways to enhance airport security and protect the traveling public. Unfortunately, as this article was being created, a terrorist bombing on a train in London was a sobering call for hyper-vigilance and ways to safeguard passengers in all forms of mass transportation as well as people gathered in public places (on the street as well as inside large venues) as we’ve seen in Paris and Las Vegas.

Airport security - testing different technologyTravelers were used to placing laptops in separate plastic bins for screening and as of this summer, the procedure has been extended to tablets, e-readers, and handheld game consoles. This expansion replaced a controversial ban under consideration for relegating electronics to the cargo hold. The move was designed to help TSA officers obtain a clearer X-ray image, elevating aviation security.

Any new or expanded procedure or technology innovation that adds an additional layer of security at the checkpoint helps thwart terrorist activity, which seems unlikely to diminish anytime soon. A reported ISIS attempt in August to smuggle an explosive through carry-on baggage security in Australia confirms that aviation remains a prime terrorist target.

Post-911 Progress?

TSA’s position about reports of mishaps during checkpoint tests conducted by its agents is that these tests represent but one element of a security process, which includes other measures starting when the reservation is made and concluding at destination arrival. Layered security measures at airports include behavior-detection officers, canine patrols, passenger background checks, and devices to check for weapons and explosives.

However, is the layered approach effective? Today 100% of checked baggage is screened, and advanced imaging technology has replaced walk-through metal detectors. Yet many security experts believe that the most beneficial improvements since the 9/11 attacks are stronger, locked cockpit doors and passengers and flight crews who are more alert about the possibility of terrorist acts.

Anticipation & Angst

As airports evaluate different types of security technology, they strive to balance air passenger safety and convenience with concerns about issues such as the safety of x-ray scanners and privacy considerations in biometric screening. Here are some checkpoint procedures and potentially powerful new screening equipment TSA is currently exploring:

  • ID scanning (credential authentication technology) to replace manual inspection and validation of IDs and matching them to boarding passes. Benefit: saves time and personnel cost.
  • Addressing X-ray scanners’ ineffectiveness in screening carry-ons that are tightly packed with overlapping items, travelers remove laptops and other electronic devices, plus books, magazines and other papers from carry-ons and place in separate bins for screening. Benefit: improved accuracy. Bust: slower checkpoint throughput.
  • CT scanner for carry-ons. Benefit: clear, 3-D image eliminates need for removal of any content. Bust: expensive and slow, requiring a tray-return system that makes them 5-10 times more expensive than existing x-ray equipment; possible infrastructure changes to support weight, power requirements, heat output, sound; capacity for human error high in detecting weapons and explosives, (“Retooling Airport Security Checkpoint”, July 17, 2017, Getting There by Ned Levi), large footprint, cost.
  • A second conveyor belt that’s automated (known as automated screening lane), with an additional belt for flagged bags. Benefit: minimizes bottlenecks. Bust: no improvement in detecting explosives.
  • Miami’s airport (MIA) recently completed a six-month pilot to test advanced x-ray equipment and trace explosives detection. Benefit: replaces sniffer machines notorious for high rate of false positives. Bust: high false alarm rate from food items; larger footprint; operator training required.

After discussing shortcomings of many other checkpoint procedures, Mr. Levi concludes, “TSA needs to screen passengers and their belongings at the airport with equipment that can actually do the job, using sensible, cost-effective procedures.” We’ve demonstrated our wholehearted agreement with equipment that uses proven technology for detecting explosives in electronics in seconds.

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