TSA taking deep look at CT scanners for security checkpoints

The TSA is slated to put Analogic's ConneCT 3-D baggage-screening system on trial at New York JFK in April.
The TSA is slated to put Analogic's ConneCT 3-D baggage-screening system on trial at New York JFK in April. Photo Credit: Analogic

New 3-D screening systems that the TSA has under trial could eventually put an end to requirements that flyers remove electronics from their carry-ons at checkpoints as well as eliminate the need for checkpoint prohibitions on liquid containers larger than 3.4 ounces.

"If you could see everything from miniscule items to large things, absolutely, we would like to do that," said Steve Karoly, the TSA's assistant administrator for security capabilities.

Such a development, while not expected in the immediate future, would surely be welcome news to travelers, especially since the TSA is in the process of rolling out heightened procedures nationwide that require flyers who aren't in the PreCheck line to remove all electronics larger than a cellphone from their carry-ons.

The cause of the TSA's optimism is new computerized axial tomography (CT) scanners that are now on the market. CT scanners provide security screeners with 3-D images that can be rotated for a more thorough analysis than what existing TSA scanners allow. They are also programmed with algorithms to detect explosives, weapons and other items that are not allowed in carry-on bags.

The technology has long been used in the medical arena, and the TSA already uses CT scanners for checked baggage. But the technology has only recently reached the point where machines could be made small enough to work at airport checkpoints, said Jose Freig, the chief security officer for American Airlines. American, Freig said, has committed to spending approximately $6 million on CT screening to spur its development.

Since last summer, the TSA has been testing CT scanners at checkpoints in Phoenix and Boston. Another trial is slated to commence at New York JFK in April. And Karoly said the TSA will be expanding the trials to a total of four or five airports by the summer.

He cautioned that it is too early to draw firm conclusions from the Boston and Phoenix trials, since the TSA is stationed in more than 440 U.S. airports. Still, early results have been encouraging.

"What we're seeing out in the sample set, it looks pretty good," Karoly said.

Indeed, despite Karoly's measured tone, the TSA is bullish enough about CT scanning that its recently released 2019 budget request includes $80.5 million to purchase and deploy the technology, up from the request of just $900,000 it made a year ago.

Mark Laustra, vice president for global business development at Analogic, maker of the ConneCT screening system that will be deployed at JFK, said the technology is especially useful in an era when travelers tightly pack carry-on bags because they don't want to pay checked-bag fees for larger suitcases.

"TSA needs to see through all that clutter," he said. "The system digitally unpacks the bag. It sees through all the different layers in the bag. ... It easily tells the difference between an explosive and a bottle of water."

Laustra and Freig both said that CT scanners don't actually move bags through checkpoint more quickly than the scanners in use now. But they nevertheless increase efficiency, because TSA agents can see images better, meaning there are fewer delays while they take long pauses to view certain items and fewer holdups while a bag is placed back through the machine.

In addition, if the TSA does eventually loosen requirements on liquids and electronics in carry-ons because of CT scanners, flyers would not need to spend as much time placing items into separate trays, and the screening belts would be less clogged.

"The reality is everybody raves about it," Freig said. "Frankly, the screeners love it."


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