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The future of airport security? What happens in Vegas might show up at a TSA checkpoint near you

Control tower of the Orlando International Airport, on June 27, 2017. Hundreds of people were taken off a Norwegian Airlines plane on Sunday evening after three people were involved in a fight as it prepared to depart from Orlando International Airport, according to airport officials. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

The TSA body scanner in the basement of McCarran International Airport looks unfinished, two large panels facing each other with no tubelike enclosure like those at other airports.

Passengers going through the scanner during security screening don’t raise their arms, fingers touching above their head, as they do at other airports. They extend them by their sides, palms facing back, a sort of reverse-goal-post position.

The scanner is called an enhanced Advance Imaging Technology body scanner, and it’s part of a first-of-its kind TSA test of new technology.

Rather than deploying certified new security technology from the TSA lab to a variety of airports across the country for testing alongside standard equipment, the agency has created a standalone checkpoint featuring a range of new technology in an isolated environment that doesn’t disrupt normal screening operations.

To get a good read on the pros and cons of the new technology and screening practices, the checkpoint screens only about 200 passengers an hour instead of the 1,200 passengers screened at the regular checkpoint a floor above.

The goal of the “innovation checkpoint”: Come up with a smoother, safer airport security screening process without disrupting regular airport operations in the process.

“The security piece … is one of the portions of that passenger journey that for all of us, even myself, can be nerve-wracking,” said Jose Bonilla,director of TSA’s Innovation Task Force. “We’re not just focusing on the next shiny hardware. We’re focusing on processes. We’re focusing on effectiveness, efficiency and utilizing those passengers that travel through those areas to give us feedback.”

How is the TSA screening process different at the new Las Vegas checkpoint?

There are up to three main differences travelers going through the checkpoint in the basement of Terminal 3 near the international arrivals hall will notice.

1) No need to show your boarding pass: The checkpoint features credential authentication technology, which aims to speed up the ID check. Instead of showing a boarding pass and ID to the TSA officer, travelers just hand over their ID, which is inserted into a machine. It verifies that the ID is authentic and, through a connection to the agency’s Secure Flight database, lets the officer know you’re due to fly that day and whether you have TSA PreCheck or regular screening. The officer also verifies that you match the image on your ID. (Another CAT machine, this one with a camera, takes identify fraud detection process a step further with facial recognition. Travelers’ photos are taken at the checkpoint to match it with their ID. The technology is being tested this month in the PreCheck lane at the regular TSA checkpoint in Terminal 3.)

2) Keep your laptops in your bag, even without TSA PreCheck: There are four types of computed tomography machines being tested, all of which give 3D images of carry-on bags much like a cat scan for medical screening. One of the machines allows TSA officers to use a mouse to virtually lift a laptop or other items out of a carry-on bag for closer inspection on the screen, another uses a computer touchscreen. Passengers must still take out liquids. The TSA has already approved the purchase of 300 CT machines for use in airports later this year following airport tests in Phoenix, New York and other cities and is testing it alongside the others in Las Vegas to compare the technologies.

3) A quicker trip through the body scanner, with no claustrophobia. The new Rohde & Schwarz body scanner with the flat panels, one of the body scanners in use at the new checkpoint, uses millimeter wave radio frequency technology. Travelers will hear a beep when the image is taken instead of the whirring sound of the current body scanner as it moves from one side to the other. (Note that there are traditional body scanners and metal detectors in the innovation checkpoint, too, so not all travelers will go through the Rohde & Schwarz machine. There is also one of the machines at Denver International Airport.)

No, the TSA isn’t using travelers as guinea pigs on unproven security technology

The machines in use at the Las Vegas test checkpoint have already been certified by the TSA, Bonilla said.

“Every piece of technology that you see there at that checkpoint has completed what we call certification testing,” he said.

The systems have been tested at a transportation security lab in New Jersey “to ensure that they can find the (security) threat based off of current standards,” he said.

If a system doesn’t pass the test there, it doesn’t make its way to the TSA for a safety assessment, followed by an operational assessment.

Which travelers go through the new high-tech TSA checkpoint in Vegas?

For the initial stages of the checkpoint project, the TSA is partnering with United Airlines, whose flights depart from Terminal 3. The checkpoint is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and United passengers traveling at those times are sent to the lower checkpoint, according to United spokesman Charles Hobart. They are notified about the new checkpoint a day before their flight but can choose to go through the main checkpoint if they prefer, even after they head downstairs, he said.

Las Vegas as a travel Petri dish

Las Vegas was selected because, well, everyone goes to Vegas. McCarran airport attracts an enviable mix of business travelers and vacationers, U.S. residents and international travelers from around the world and multiple peak travel days, meaning just about every type of traveler and size of crowd passes through the airport, TSA and airport officials say.

“All that plays into how they pack, how they travel through a checkpoint or the entire experience from the curb to the gate area,” said Rosemary Vassiliadis, who runs the Las Vegas airport as Clark County Director of Aviation.

Another major factor: McCarran airport has the space. The area was initially designed to be a separate checkpoint for passengers in the D gates (Terminal 3 has D and E gates), but there weren’t TSA resources to routinely staff two full checkpoints, so the upstairs checkpoint handles screening for both.

The innovation checkpoint is an ideal alternative for the basement space, she said.

“It was just a perfect place to have an operation,” she said.

How soon until this new technology shows up at other airports?

It depends on the machine and the test results. One of the 3D bag scanners being used in Las Vegas, from Smith’s Detection Inc., is already on its way, following a contract award from the TSA for 300 systems earlier this year. (The rollout was delayed due to a contract dispute.) For other equipment, it depends on the test results. Some of the screening equipment will never show up, while promising technology will slowly make its way there after going through the TSA’s procurement procedures.


© 2019 USA Today