Explosives Detector Will Give Passengers a Sniff Test

The latest tool to make air travel safer stood at a security checkpoint at Lambert Field on Tuesday awaiting a trial run.

The machine resembled an arched gray metal detector. But instead of sensing metal, it will "sniff" passengers for the smallest traces of explosives. The Transportation Security Administration plans to test it today and begin using it in the next week or two to screen passengers entering the C and D concourses in the main terminal, where American Airlines gates, among others, are located.

"It's our new toy," one screener said to a teenage boy, gawking at the machine as he passed through the security line.

The machine -- an explosives detection trace portal -- will allow screeners to find explosives without wanding, patting down passengers or checking the soles of their shoes.

Although it will reduce the number of pat-down searches, it won't eliminate them. Set off a metal detector and you'll still get frisked. All passengers still will be required to pass through and send their carry-on luggage through the metal detectors.

Only those selected for secondary screening will be asked to step into the semi-enclosed machine. The machine will blow rapid puffs of air from all directions, dislodging tiny particles from the person's skin and clothing. The portal will analyze the air for suspicious material.

If none is found, a computerized voice will direct the person to exit.

"They're another tool that we use as part of a multi-layered system of security to ensure that explosive components don't get on airplanes," said Carrie Harmon, a spokeswoman for the transportation security agency.

As of June 6, the security agency had 91 of these portals, also known as "puffers," at 35 airports nationwide. The agency plans to install two more at Lambert this fall, Harmon said. Most likely, they will be at checkpoints at Concourse A, in the main terminal and Concourse E, in the East Terminal.

The machine, called Entry Scan and made by GE Infrastructure Security, costs from $165,000 to $170,000.

Two summers ago, the transportation security agency became more aggressive in its pat-down searches after Chechen women hid plastic explosives under their clothing, walked through metal detectors and boarded two airplanes in Russia. They detonated their explosives, causing both flights to crash. The more intrusive searches generated privacy complaints from women in the United States.

Soon afterward, the agency announced the explosive detection machines had met its standards in a pilot program at 14 airports.


How the screener works

- A passenger steps into the semi-enclosed machine, its glass doors close and puffs of air dislodge molecules from the person's skin and clothing.

- The machine spends about 20 seconds analyzing the air for chemicals used in explosives.

- If no chemicals are detected, a computerized voice tells the passenger to exit.

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