Airport Screening Gets Smarter

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Fri Jan 21 19:51:08 PST 2005


The Wall Street Journal

      January 20, 2005

Airport Screening Gets Smarter
Government Rolls Out Tests
 Of Systems to Improve
 Detection of Explosives

January 20, 2005; Page D1

Prepare to get puffed on.

The government is stepping up its investment in technology designed to make
screening people and baggage at airports easier and more reliable.

General Electric Co. will announce today that the federal Transportation
Security Administration has certified its new machines that more precisely
detect explosives in checked luggage, reducing false positives and making
it possible to do fewer manual searches of bags. The machines, already in
place in European cities and Israel, will be tested in U.S. airports this
year, according to industry sources.

In addition, the TSA, part of the Department of Homeland Security, plans to
expand a pilot program using so-called Explosive Trace Portals to scan
passengers for explosives. These machines, made by GE and Smith Detections,
a unit of London-based Smiths Group PLC, work by blowing puffs of air at
passengers, collecting samples of ion-charged air, and instantly analyzing
it for explosives, sounding an alarm if any trace is detected.

The GE machines are currently in five U.S. airports, including San Diego
and Tampa; as many as nine other cities will be added this year, according
to the TSA, including Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, Las Vegas and San
Francisco. A Smith Detections unit is in New York's Kennedy Airport.

Bomb sniffer: GE's 'trace portal,' now in five U.S. airports, tests people
for explosives.

The technology should go some way toward resolving complaints about the new
security procedures in place since 9/11. The TSA has been under fire for
the way screeners conduct personal searches, and for mishandling
passengers' checked bags during searches.

In the latest figures, from November 2004, the TSA received 652 complaints
regarding its screening procedures, and an additional 678 complaints about
its handling of personal property. That compares with 218 complaints about
courtesy and 42 about the processing time.

But the technology is advancing faster than the government's ability to
deploy it. At current spending levels, says David Plavin, president of
Airports Council International-North America, an airport trade group, it
will take 15 to 20 years to automate airports' baggage systems with the
advanced screening and more-efficient explosives-detection technology.

"We're way, way below what large-scale deployment would need," he says.
"We're not in the right ballpark."

TSA funding for the new technologies has varied from year to year. This
year, the TSA has $180 million to purchase explosives-detection systems, up
20% from $150 million in 2004. Additionally, the TSA has announced about $1
billion in grants to pay for airport construction to install screening
machines as part of automated baggage systems.

GE and analysts who follow the company believe that the market for security
technology will continue to grow in the U.S. and overseas as ports and
other transportation systems look for ways to screen for explosives.

A TSA spokeswoman said the administration is "committed to aggressively
deploying the newest technology available" within the authorized budget.

Explosives screening has also moved to cruise ships and commercial air
cargo. Recently, Miami's airport officials placed one of its
explosives-detection screeners at its port area to screen luggage for
passengers boarding cruise ships. The TSA also has a small program
screening commercial air cargo at a handful of airports in cities including
Miami and Dallas. The machines are made by GE and L-3 Communications, a New
York City-based manufacturer of security technology, also approved by the

There is competition to produce lower-cost machines. The TSA recently
certified another manufacturer, Reveal Imaging Technologies, based in
Bedford, Mass., which has developed baggage screening machines that are
smaller and less expensive than those made by GE or L-3.

GE's newest machines scan bags that have been flagged, checking the
molecular makeup of a suspect item.

Reveal's machines cost about $500,000 apiece, compared with more than $1
million for GE's and L-3's. But these machines may be viable only in
smaller airports.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, as part of a federal mandate, the country's 450
airports installed explosive-trace detection machines or
explosive-detection machines based on advanced medical computed tomography,
or CT technology. The explosive-detection machines, made by GE and L-3,
detect items of a certain density that could be an explosive.

The machine isn't foolproof; a chunk of cheese or a fruitcake, for example,
can falsely trigger an alarm. Once a bag is tagged as having a possible
bomb inside, airport security employees further evaluate the bag through an
onscreen view and then often a search.

GE's newest technology, called Yxlon XES 3000, works in concert with the
CT-based explosive-detection machines. Once a bag has been flagged, it is
sent through the second machine, which determines the molecular makeup of
the suspect item. GE says the secondary screening reduces to a minimum the
percentage of false positives -- and the need for time-consuming hand

The trace portals that screen individual passengers cost from $130,000 to
$150,000 apiece. They are used in addition to metal detectors, but on a
random basis, not with every passenger.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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