New scanners help ease carry-on hassles

BALTIMORE -- Connie Steller stared at the sign near an airport security checkpoint here Wednesday like someone studying a winning lottery ticket to make sure it was real.

"Please leave these items in your carry-on bag," the sign read above an illustration of bottles and laptops.

"Wow, we don't have to take everything out," Steller said as she put her bag on a checkpoint table.

The hassle of removing laptops from cases and of taking shampoo, toothpaste and liquids out of carry-on bags is ending for some travelers at a handful of airports that are testing the latest screening device.

At Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Cleveland Hopkins International and Manchester-Boston Regional in New Hampshire, scanners have started using high-resolution X-ray machines that produce three-dimensional images of carry-on bags and automatically highlight suspected weapons.

The Transportation Security Administration spent $13 million to purchase and install 20 of the machines, and plans to test them at other airports in coming months.

"It's a huge plus in that the machines can find explosives. It's a huge hit in that it costs a fortune," said aviation-security consultant Rich Roth.

The machines cost $350,000-$400,000 each, according to Amy Kudwa, TSA spokeswoman. Their purpose is to close one of the biggest aviation-security holes -- difficulty screeners have in finding bombs, guns and knives in carry-on bags using the $35,000-$60,000 X-ray machines at most of the nation's 2,000 airport checkpoints.

A classified TSA report recently obtained by USA TODAY found that screeners at Los Angeles International Airport missed about 75% of the fake bombs that government agents used in tests last year. Chicago O'Hare screeners missed about 60% of the fake bombs.

The new machines produce sharp color images of what is inside a bag and highlight potential weapons in red. Screeners can see whether packed bottles exceed size limits the TSA imposed last year to guard against liquid bombs.

Using a computer mouse, screeners can rotate the image of a bag to look at it from all angles and see objects that might otherwise be blocked by dense laptops.

"We can virtually unpack the bag if we want to," Kudwa said.

The new machines are bigger than standard X-rays -- about a foot wider, a few feet longer and, at 4,500 pounds, up to five times the weight. That could make them hard to fit in crammed checkpoints, Roth said.

These machines, as well as the scanners that produce revealing images of passengers under their clothing, are the latest technology that the TSA has started using this year to better screen passengers and carry-on bags.

Manufacturers Analogic Corp. and Reveal Imaging Technologies received millions of dollars from the TSA to develop the machines, according to the companies' websites. The machines are already becoming popular with passengers.

On Wednesday, when Donna Gardner arrived at the Baltimore/Washington concourse where Analogic's machine is being tested, a screener pointed her to a checkpoint with a standard X-ray machine. Gardner asked to use the Analogic machine she had used the previous week. "I don't have to do all that unpacking and repacking to get through security," she said.

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