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
"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."