Sophisticated scanners to help BWI screen checked bags for explosives

Huge devices can look at 500 an hour, give 3-D image of contents

November 17, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Baltimore-Washington International Airport's latest weapon in security enforcement is as large as a Ford Explorer, costs as much as 20 loaded Mercedes-Benz sedans and, its manufacturers say, has more precise X-ray vision than the most advanced medical screening devices.

BWI officials have reinforced the airport's floor and cleared the way for the arrival of four eXaminer 3DX 6000 machines, new explosive detection devices that weigh close to 7,000 pounds apiece.

As the federal government moves to make screening checked bags the law - part of an airport security package Congress expects the president to sign Monday - the eXaminer will probably become a more frequent sight at airports nationwide.

Each machine, costing $1 million, can screen up to 500 bags an hour, reducing the need for time-consuming hand searches. And its advanced technology studies the contents of bags from all angles, generating a 3-D image of packed items.

"You can't hide, that's for sure," said Wilbur Jowers, director of programs for the security division of L3 Communication Inc., which manufactures the machine. "Nothing is missed."

L3, based in New York, rushed four of its 23 machines to BWI at the Federal Aviation Administration's request last month. Though FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac declined to say why BWI was a priority, airport officials said BWI received the machines because of its proximity to Washington.

Airport officials expect the new machines will enhance security and alleviate the pretzel-twisting lines that have dogged the airport since Sept. 11.

Where most carry-on screeners are designed to find suspicious objects, such as handguns, the explosive detection machines examine the chemical components of each bag to find objects resembling bombs.

"We're looking at things that, from physical world and chemical world, say, `explosive,'" Jowers said.

BWI's staff had hoped that the machines would be screening bags by next week, when an estimated 377,000 passengers will travel through BWI for the Thanksgiving holiday. But the eXaminer systems are dormant outside BWI's ticket counters. Officials now say they hope the machines will be running by Christmas. But even then, only selected luggage will be screened.

"For us to get to total bag checks, it's going to be in the future," airport spokesman Melanie Miller said. "It's not going to be this year."

Training, Miller said, is the main reason for the delay. Jowers has been running training classes near the airport this month for airline security screeners, but he needs more time to train all the workers who will use the machines.

"We just need to make sure the machines are manned by highly trained and appropriate employees," Miller said. "It's just a long process."

One of the new technology's selling points is that it takes the detective work out of the hands of the security screener, said Joseph Paresi, president of L3's security division.

The eXaminer has its roots in CT scan technology used in hospitals. But the results at airports are immediate and don't require human diagnosis; when the machine sees something suspicious, it beeps a sound few can ignore.

"They don't fall asleep as easy," Paresi said of the screeners. "They don't lose track because they're not the ones making the decision. This does the automatic detection for them so they don't have to make a decision."

On the downside, the explosive detection machines are expensive to buy and maintain. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, L3 and its only competitor, InVision Technologies of Newark, Calif., had their machines in just a few airports, among them Honolulu, Providence, R.I., Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The two companies, the only ones certified by the FAA to make the machines, were producing about three screeners a month.

At BWI, Miller said, Southwest will maintain two machines, and Delta and United will maintain one each. A fifth explosives detection machine is up and running at BWI. Of the airport's domestic carriers, only U.S. Airways uses one for checked luggage. The airline's machine is tucked behind its ticket counter, and neither the FAA nor U.S. Airways would discuss when it arrived or why the airline was chosen to receive it, citing security reasons.

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