"Puffer" Bomb Screeners a Bust; Close Up

Machines intended to dislodge traces of suspicious chemicals having hard time getting off ground in airport trial runs

AIRPORT SECURITY | Expensive high-tech machines that subject passengers to a blast of air intended to dislodge traces of suspicious chemicals are having a hard time getting off the ground in trial runs at several airports.

Three years ago, with great fanfare, federal officials unveiled a terror-fighting machine they called the "puff portal," a contraption that resembled a Star Trek transporter booth and was designed to detect explosives at airport checkpoints with unprecedented precision.

When a passenger stepped inside the puff portal, so the officials said, the machine would send sharp bursts of air to dislodge particles from the body, hair and clothing, and analyze them for microscopic traces of explosives.

But the expensive devices each costs about $160,000 have been largely ineffectual and the much ballyhooed $30 million program is starting to look like a techno-folly to some critics.

Less than 25 percent of an anticipated 434 devices have been deployed nationwide, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which listed the cause as "performance and maintenance issues."

No new machines have been deployed since last year, and, despite ongoing review and repairs, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration acknowledges it still has not fixed the problems and cannot say when or if the program will be restarted.

"TSA continues to work with the manufacturer on improving maintenance elements of first-generation units," wrote Christopher White, a TSA spokesman, in an e-mail response to questions from The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., about the program's status. "A timeline has not been established for deploying additional trace portals."

A total of 95 units have been deployed to 38 airports, according to White, who said the $30 million cost includes the initial pilot program and purchase, installation and maintenance for the puff portals.

White would not elaborate on the continuing troubles with the machines.

The ongoing problems with the puff portals come at a time of heightened security concerns for the nation's aviation system.

Earlier this month, authorities said they foiled a would-be plot to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport by targeting the hub's jet-fuel tanks and lines.

At Newark (N.J.) Liberty International Airport, each of the nine checkpoints was supposed to have a puff portal. Only two units one in Terminal A and the other in Terminal B are in operation, with none in Terminal C, the hub's busiest.

Both machines have been plagued by false alarms and an inability to reset properly, according to a TSA supervisor, who said repairs made earlier this year have not helped.

"We all laugh about it now because we never know if it's working or not," said the supervisor, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to discuss TSA issues.

The machines deployed to Newark Liberty were manufactured by a New Jersey company, Smiths Detection of Pine Brook.

Mark Laustra, vice president and general manager of homeland security for the firm, said the company continues to work to improve the machine's filter troubles and other glitches.

"We didn't understand the amount of dust and dirt that was in an airport. The filter was getting clogged way too often," said Laustra.

He explained the filters were replaced with easier-to-clean models on both machines at Newark Liberty in February.

"I'm a little surprised to hear they're still having a lot of troubles with them," said Laustra. He added the company also has made "minor software improvements" and will continue to make other "incremental" upgrades.

TSA also purchased puff portals from GE Security, a subsidiary of General Electric Co.

"We continue to work with the TSA on any issues that are of concern to them," said Steve Hill, a GE spokesman, adding "we continue to be confident in the future of the product."

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