The Transportation Security Administration, in a potential strategy shift, may screen carry-on bags with new three-dimensional X-ray machines that are better at spotting liquid explosives, guns and other weapons.
The 3-D machines have "an extraordinary ability to find" liquids, TSA chief Kip Hawley told USA TODAY. "They're a step beyond where we are today."
The TSA has limited the volume of liquids passengers can carry on planes since authorities foiled an alleged plot in London in August to bomb U.S.-bound planes with liquid explosives. Installing new X-ray machines would improve security and could ease the liquid restrictions, aviation consultant Richard Roth said.
The question for the TSA is whether to buy upgraded X-ray machines for $75,000 to $200,000 each or to wait possibly two years for better machines costing about $400,000. The TSA had planned to wait for the more expensive machines, which have the highest level of explosives detection. But, Hawley said, "if it's going to be two years, maybe it makes sense economically and security-wise to put an intermediate step in between."
The TSA will evaluate the machines in coming months. They provide more detailed images than the X-rays airports have used for 30 years. Those X-rays have been criticized by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general for inadequately spotting explosives, guns and knives. Upgraded X-rays "might significantly increase screeners' ability to detect" weapons, a 2004 report by the inspector general said.
"They're your best answer now," Roth said. "The technology is getting so good on those machines."
The upgraded machines, called multiview X-ray, scan from several angles to create three-dimensional images of items in a bag. Current X-ray machines use one image that can make a knife look like a pen.
"We may actually be able to speed security lines" by giving airport screeners more detailed images that reduce the number of bags they must hand-search for weapons, said Peter Kant of Rapiscan Systems, a leading manufacturer of airport X-ray machines.
Kant said the TSA's request for upgraded X-rays "is the first time in a few years they've opened up their evaluation" of technology that screens carry-on bags.
Multiview X-rays are used in European airports to scan checked luggage and at courthouses, embassies and other buildings.
"The technology is ready now," said Thomas Ripp, president of L-3 Security and Detection Systems, which has developed a machine being considered by the TSA.
The upgraded X-rays are roughly the same size and weight as the machines used at U.S. airport checkpoints. A $400,000, high-grade bomb detector made by Analogic is nearly twice as wide and long and four times as heavy as L-3's upgraded X-ray, according to specifications from both companies.
Analogic CEO John Wood said his Cobra machine is so much faster it could replace two X-ray machines and save money by reducing the number of screeners. The automated Cobra sounds an alarm when explosives are found instead of requiring a screener to spot them on an X-ray screen.
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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.