Checking out devices for BWI check-ins

New system being tested to make process smoother

April 29, 2008|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

The homeland security secretary unveiled yesterday a new checkpoint screening system being tested at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and announced other measures to make providing identification at check-in less hectic for travelers.

The $2.1 million pilot program at BWI, called Checkpoint Evolution,travelers' includes new X-ray machines to better scan carry-ons and "whole body imaging" machines that show potentially hazardous objects that may be concealed under a passenger's clothing. Some groups such as the ACLU complain the system can violate passengers' privacy.

The checkpoint makeover also involves more than $300,000 in aesthetic improvements - soft lighting, calming music, better signs and an automatic bin-return system - to allow Transportation Security Administration officers to better detect jittery possible perpetrators.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Business section misidentified a Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman. Her name is Lauren Wolf.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Everyone who's been through a checkpoint knows it's not a relaxing experience," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, showing off the new system at a BWI briefing. "It's a dramatic improvement in the experience. It's a dramatic improvement for the screening officers."

To prepare for the pilot program, TSA officers have completed a 16-hour training course on explosives detection and how to calmly engage passengers. All 43,000 screeners across the country soon will take similar courses. Most travelers passing through Southwest Airlines' Terminal B checkpoint at BWI will experience the new system, which was set up Friday. They still must remove their shoes.

Using newly mastered behavior-detection techniques yesterday morning, an officer was able to flag an agitated traveler who was later arrested by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police on two outstanding warrants, TSA spokeswoman Lauren Brown said. The charges were unrelated to terrorism.

"By calming things down, we allow officers to interact with passengers in a way that lowers the general stress level," Chertoff said. "Then we train them to look for travelers who exhibit unusal signs of stress, fear or deception."

TSA officials heralded the new multiview X-ray luggage scanners as the first significant upgrade from 1970s-era checkpoint technology, though the machines don't have the ability to detect liquid explosives. By year's end, the TSA expects a nationwide roll-out of 600 of the scanners, which cost about $125,000 each.

An additional 30 full-body scan machines, which cost up to $250,000 apiece, will be purchased, TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said. The black-and-white, three-dimensional images show weapons or explosives that might be concealed on the body. But the millimeter wave technology also picks up surgical scars, birthmarks and body parts, provoking privacy concerns when the machines were introduced recently in Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles.

"It really is a virtual strip search that reveals not just people's naked bodies," but also personal medical conditions, said Jay Stanley, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program. "We question whether the security value is really proportional to the cost of people's dignity and privacy."

Travelers who object can request a traditional pat-down, but TSA Administrator Kip Hawley said the Phoenix pilot revealed that 90 percent of passengers preferred the body scan. A person's face is obscured in the image, which is deleted upon TSA inspection.

These are just the latest security innovations being tested at BWI, where the TSA has spent millions on technology that it later decided not to widely adopt. Last fall, TSA said it would spend more than $13 million on Auto-EDS explosives detection scanners, but they proved too clunky for busy airports. Neither have "puffers," which use quick blasts of air to test for explosives, been widely embraced.

Chertoff also announced yesterday a new policy to limit the restrictions on innocent travelers whose names match those on the federal terrorist watch list. Each airline will be asked to voluntarily create a new system to verify and confidentially store a passenger's date of birth, clearing up any watch list misidentification, he said. Previously inconvenienced customers will then be able to check in online or at airline kiosks, something those with names similar to those on the watch list are now barred from doing.

"Thousands of people every day end up being inconvenienced by this thing," Howe said of the watch list. "It's a significant change if the airlines choose to participate."

One airline is already removing misidentified passengers from the watch list, though the TSA wouldn't disclose which one.

The airlines will individually have to determine whether they have the technology to comply with the policy, which could take some time to implement, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the industry's main trade group.

"We're going to have to learn more about how this new process will work and about whether existing computer programs the carriers use will allow them to implement it," he said.

At BWI yesterday, fliers said the checkpoint redesign seemed more organized and efficient. Many didn't comment on the calmer aesthetics because the checkpoint's soothing spa music wasn't audible.

Phoenix resident Dan Hale said he didn't mind having a image of his unclothed body scanned by the new machines but that some passengers might consider the scan a violation of their privacy.

Returning home to Miami after a weekend with relatives, Diana Kahn and her son, Joel, had a smooth security experience, saying they could tell screening officers had been retrained.

Passenger Lenita Reeves of Baltimore said the checkpoint seemed to move more quickly than usual.

"As long as it's for my safety I don't have a problem with it," she said.

l aura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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