BWI to test soft lighting, music to nab bad guys

April 01, 2008|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

Soothing blue and purple lights, ambient music, free Ziploc bags for liquid toiletries - these are the government's latest tactic for better safeguarding the nation's passenger planes.

Beginning in May, one of Southwest Airlines' checkpoints at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will pilot a new passenger screening concept that Transportation Security Administration officials say will make it easier to spot would-be terrorists. Calming panels of cool light and a low decibel level will make it harder for jittery perpetrators to blend in with the hectic environment that typically accompanies long lines of passengers waiting to pass through security screening.

"A chaotic, noisy frantic checkpoint is a great camouflage for someone with hostile intent," TSA spokesman Christopher White said yesterday as the agency showed off the new system at a warehouse at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport yesterday. "While the aesthetics are nice, we're doing this to increase security."

The TSA will also install two whole-body imaging scanners that use radio waves to detect weapons or explosives that a person may be hiding. After entering a portal, a three-dimensional image of that passenger is transmitted to a monitor, according to the TSA. The machine blurs people's faces and the monitoring agent cannot see the passenger, the TSA said. The images are then deleted, it said.

Passengers will be randomly selected to pass through the scanners, White said. Those who decline will be subject to pat-downs, questioning or other screening measures.

Some critics allege that whole-body imaging, which has been tested at the airport in Phoenix, Ariz., violates the privacy of travelers.

IDEO, a Palo Alto, Calif., subsidiary of Steelcase Inc., received a $5 million TSA contract to design the new checkpoint system and plan the retraining of the agency's 45,000 TSA officers, White said.

The technology and furniture for the screening station at BWI cost another $2.1 million, he said. TSA plans to expand the pilot to other airports by the end of the year.

"This is the first substantial change since 9/11, and with the technology, it's the first major evolution of security since the 1970s," White said.

Four multiview X-ray bag scanners with better explosive-detection capacity will replace the decades-old technology in use at BWI and the nation's other airports. The bins that passengers use to pass carry-on items through scanners will be returned by conveyor belts, freeing TSA officers to check bags and passengers.

But another explosives-detection scanner the TSA introduced at BWI with great fanfare last fall has been removed. TSA spent more than $13 million to test the Auto-EDS system but found it to be too heavy and cumbersome for busy airports, White said.

The BWI checkpoint, part of Southwest's $264 million terminal completed in 2005, has ample space for testing new TSA technology, airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said. "The physical infrastructure has the elbow room to create a new checkpoint concept."

The station makeover strives to give TSA officers a new image, too. In addition to new blue uniforms, the officers are being trained to engage more amicably with passengers.

The TSA also plans posters designed to put a human face on agents. The posters, which will be positioned along the checkpoint lines, will introduce the agents by name and say something about them. One poster depicted Pat Simmons, who is a volunteer firefighter in Delaware.

Simmons, 47, a TSA officer at BWI since 2005, was manning the new system at Reagan National yesterday.

"On and off the job, a lot of us have our chance to protect and serve wherever we can," Simmons said. "This should make our work a lot easier."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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