Airports across the country are likely to get hundreds of high-powered X-ray machines that are better at finding bombs in carry-on bags and could someday remove one of the biggest checkpoint hassles: taking a laptop out of its case.
The Transportation Security Administration started testing the new machines at three airports in the past month and could buy up to 500 starting this fall for major airports, TSA Administrator Kip Hawley said.
New equipment would replace some of the 2,000 conventional airport X-ray machines, which have a limited ability to help security screeners find bombs.
"This is a strategically significant move," Hawley said. "This will provide a sharp upgrade in security."
Advanced technology X-ray machines photograph bags from two angles instead of one and show the images on side-by-side screens. The added view could ease the TSA requirement that laptops go through X-ray machines in bins with no other items, said Peter Kant, a vice president at Rapiscan Systems, which makes the new machines.
Laptops have been a security concern because their casings and circuitry are dense and could be used to shield weapons from the current X-ray machines, which take a single photograph from underneath an object. The new machines, by taking a second photo from the side, would reveal a weapon on top of a laptop, Kant said.
Hawley said travelers shouldn't expect the laptop policy to change soon. Aviation-security consultant Rich Roth said he doubts the TSA would ease its policy because there's "too much benefit from leaving laptops outside of cases."
The machines could speed up security lines if airport screeners don't have to X-ray bags a second time to see a different angle, Hawley said.
The technology aims to counter a major threat to aviation -- bombs on a plane -- that was highlighted a year ago when authorities disrupted a plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives.
"It's a big step," said Clark Ervin, a former Homeland Security inspector general whose investigations found screeners repeatedly missed weapons. "These steps ought to have been taken sooner."
Airports in Europe and Canada are already using the machines to screen checked bags.
Tests at New York's Kennedy, Washington's National and Albuquerque airports will determine how many machines the TSA will buy. Each machine costs about $120,000, and $50 million could be spent on them. Improvements
Advanced technology X-ray machines offer several improvements over conventional X-ray devices used at airports. Among the new capabilities, the machines can:
*Photograph objects from two angles.
*Provide sharper images.
*Automatically find explosives by gauging density and shape of objects.
X-ray devices show carry-ons in 3-D
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The machines cost about $125,000 each and will allow the 2,200 security screeners at LAX to zoom in on specific items that catch their attention.
Some could stay in cases as early as August.