What’s New – and What’s Not Going – at TSA Security Checkpoints
“I don’t think anyone is saying the way we did things is the way we’ll do things,” said J. Matt Gilkeson, director of the TSA’s Innovation Task Force, which tests the new security technologies. “We want to be beyond where we were 20 years ago.”
As the TSA’s anniversary approaches, we checked in with the agency to find out the latest security developments and what the future may hold for travelers and their toiletries.
No more removing electronics and liquids
If you’re one of the 25 million TSA PreCheck members, you can skip this section. As you well know, trusted travelers can leave their electronic devices and a one-litre pouch of Lilliputian liquids, gels, pastes and creams in their hand luggage at security checkpoints. The rest of you: Good news is afoot, if it hasn’t already.
Since 2019, the TSA has been acquiring and deploying computed tomography (CT) systems, the same technology hospitals use for patients and the TSA uses for checked baggage. The agency initially purchased 300 CT scanners and expanded its inventory to over 1,230 machines. Airports have installed the technology at a steady pace. (Note: The country’s 430 federalized airports do not integrate new technologies simultaneously, due to budget and staffing constraints. So what you experience at one airport may not be the same at another.)
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“Waiting in Lane 21? Leave all items in your bag,” reads a banner at Washington-Dulles International Airport. . . Computers, cell phones and tablets!
Three-dimensional machines provide a more detailed and complete picture of a bag’s contents than previous two-dimensional models. Additionally, TSA agents can electronically search the interior of luggage, which will reduce the frequency of manual bag checks.
“It’s like a CAT scanner machine,” said Scott T. Johnson, director of federal security for the TSA in Dulles. “You can spin it around and look at it from different angles, or slice it, dice it, and [virtually] take something out of a bag.
If the machine identifies suspicious organic material, it will issue an alert. The agents, who receive additional training for 3D scanners, discovered several elements that often trigger an alert, despite their apparent innocence.
“The machine doesn’t like deodorant,” TSA agent JD Pugh said as he examined a screen displaying the contents of a Dulles passenger’s bag. Funnily enough, Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce also sets off the alarm.
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Gilkeson said object recognition is about five years away. “We’re testing here,” he said, referring to the facility in a former post office on the grounds of Reagan National Airport, “and the operational environment.” (If you’re curious about the latest developments, fly into or out of Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, home of the Innovation Checkpoint, a TSA lab for security technologies.)
The new machines, which are snow-white with a bulbous midsection and colored lights, streamline safety on multiple fronts. For example, passengers place all their bags in the bins, which transport the items neatly and orderly, like widgets on a factory assembly line. The trays are tagged with RFID, which helps officers track the status of items in the trays.
“We associate the image with trash and luggage,” Gilkeson said, “but not people yet.”
Once the bins exit the scanner, they are sent on one of two routes: to the passenger waiting on the other side or to an area where an officer will perform further screening. Empty bins, meanwhile, will return to their starting point, eliminating container shortages at the entry point and pile-ups at the finish line.
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About 100 airports have the machines, including several international facilities, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, Baltimore-Washington, Chicago O’Hare, Miami and Los Angeles. An agency spokesperson said the equipment would become as ubiquitous as the X-ray machine, unless (or until) new technology supplants it.
Since not all checkpoints or lanes will be equipped with a CT scanner, look for signage or listen to the officer’s instructions. If an employee tells you to keep your electronics and liquids inside, keep your bags tightly closed.
Liquids over 3.4 ounces? Not yet.
Unfortunately, we’re going to be stuck with mini toiletries and temporary caffeine withdrawal for the near future, if not longer. The technology is not advanced enough to quickly determine whether a large container of shampoo or an overflowing travel mug of coffee contains explosive materials.
Passengers with exceptions, such as people traveling with infants, nursing parents, or travelers with medical needs, may carry liquids exceeding 3.4 ounces. However, the TSA requires additional screening to ensure the safety of these liquids. Travelers in this group should advise security of their medically necessary fluids.
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The officer will place the container of liquid in an explosives detection device that looks like an Easy-Bake oven. If the light turns green, the passenger – and the liquid – are free to continue. If a red light is flashing, the officer will hold a test strip above the bottle and squeeze it lightly. If vapors do not cause color change, the item is considered safe. A different tint means the liquid is dangerous and cannot cross the checkpoint. The passenger has the choice of sending it in their checked baggage or handing it over.
The procedure takes several minutes, a delay that may seem negligible for the individual traveler but endless for all the others in line, waiting their turn.
“It’s not possible to filter an oversized liquid for everyone,” Gilkeson said. “We need to speed up time.”
You’ll take off your coat, but maybe not your shoes
The season is approaching when PreCheck members must follow one of the rules that apply to standard passengers all year round: remove their heavy outerwear.
“The machine can’t penetrate through your coat to see the reflection of your skin,” Gilkeson said. “He doesn’t know your jacket is a jacket.”
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When it comes to shoes, the wide range of shoe materials are a boon for fashionistas but a bust for scanner machines. “There are so many different types of shoes, we want to reduce the false alarm rate,” he said, adding, “You have to know your shoes. Do they have metal?
To accommodate the diversity of footwear, the agency launched a pilot program testing machines that inspect the garment from top to bottom. Basically, you walk over the scanner. One way to avoid taking your shoes off: if a TSA bomb-sniffing dog checks you online and moves on. A selfless puff means you passed the test and can leave your shoes.
Gilkeson admitted that no one appreciates a pat-down.
“We want to get out of the business of reaching people,” he said.
The TSA has prioritized creating a more hospitable environment at security checkpoints, especially for transgender travelers. If a pat-down is required, the agency will no longer assign a male or female agent based on the traveler’s appearance, which can lead to uncomfortable public conversation about gender identity. Instead, agents will press a single button (previously they pressed a male or female button) and the traveler can choose the sex of the officer he prefers. The TSA announced the program in March and will begin software upgrades to Leidos Advanced Imaging Technology by the end of the year, with the goal of completing the update by next fall.
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Also on the sensitivity file: slaps in the hair. Gilkeson said the TSA is exploring ways to phase out the controversial procedure, which could upset travelers whose hairstyles are associated with a cultural practice or religious belief.
Expect simplified identification
The TSA is moving down the road to self-security, a trend that will give passengers more responsibility and autonomy, much like checking and tagging baggage.
“Security is becoming more and more automated,” Gilkeson said.
Passengers departing from airports equipped with credential authentication technology units do not have to present their boarding pass to an agent. Official identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, will suffice. The system is in place at around 1,300 travel document checkpoints at airports across the country.
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At the next level of DIY security, travelers will scan their IDs themselves, a trend that joins the contactless movement born during the pandemic. The ID syncs with the airline’s reservation information and informs the agent that the ID holder is a ticketed passenger and eligible to clear security. The identity verification of the future could also involve a camera that takes a picture of the passenger and matches the image of their face with their ID card.
“The machine is looking for bone structure,” Gilkeson said.
The agency is testing the technology in PreCheck lanes at airports in Baltimore, Atlanta, Phoenix and DCA. “People think it’s hand sanitizer,” he said of the dispenser-like equipment.
The long-term goal is to establish electronic gates that allow passengers to pass through security checks as quickly and painlessly as swiping their card at a subway station.
Of course, not all of TSA’s technologies are successful. The inflating machine, which blew air at passengers like little sneezes, was discontinued, as was the hologram that provided security checkpoint information and directions at three airports in New York and the United States. New Jersey. The holograms failed because the passengers were too rushed or distracted to stop and listen to a talking luminary.