At Oakland International Airport, the latest advance in security happened in February, but hardly anyone saw it or noticed.
Until Thursday, when representatives of the federal Transportation Security Administration, General Electric and the airport offered the media a peek behind the check-in counter for Southwest Airlines' Terminal 2. There, they showed off the $16.4 million quartet of new machines, fully integrated into the terminal's baggage handling conveyor system.
"The cool thing about this is, this is what all the big airports would like to install someday," said Nico Melendez, spokesman for the TSA's Pacific Region. "It's great for the passengers, because it gets things back to the way it used to be."
The way it used to be, that is, before the attacks of Sept. 11 changed the face of aviation.
It's not that the security is any less stringent, Melendez explained. It's that travelers no longer see minivan-sized scanning machines out in front of the ticket counters.
Instead, the new system allows passengers to simply give their luggage to the airline employee at the counter, who weighs it, prints out a claim check and puts it on the conveyor belt behind the counter.
Then the luggage is whisked around a conveyor system and shunted into one of four brand-new CTX 9000 scanners, which get the first -- and likely last -- look at what's inside.
But instead of a security person peering at a screen to see if anything suspicious appears, computer software in the machines matches what it sees to a database of suspicious shapes, densities and combinations of objects.
"There's a library of algorithms that the machine looks for," said Steve Hill, a spokesman for Newark-based GE Security, which manufactures the scanners and other security devices used at the airport. "It allows it to match the items in the scan to a list of known threat substances."
If a scan shows an apparent red-flag item, that bag is then rolled along the conveyor to a nearby room where TSA inspectors give it a closer look. The room also contains a bank of computer terminals that show data and scans from all four of the new scanners, monitored by one TSA employee -- a job previously done by four people.
One of the principal advantages of the system is its ability to process 1,000 pieces of luggage an hour, as opposed to the 250 bags previously checked by hand, chemical swabs, bomb-sniffing dogs and stand-alone CTX scanners, explained airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes.
"The baggage screening should all happen behind the scenes, where there's an area for that," said Barnes. The new system, she added, keeps the bulky machinery out of passengers' way.
Speeding up the security process will help the airport keep up with the 14 percent increase in passengers since the TSA started screening luggage there in 2002.
While bags were rolling through the back room, Windsor resident Linda Partida rolled her suitcases and led her two children, Toli, 7, and Miles, 5, through the Southwest Airlines check-in line out front.
"Anything that speeds the process without compromising security is good," she said on her way to a Los Angeles flight.
Ron Golden, a title insurance executive standing in line to switch his ticket to an earlier flight back to Burbank with his son and business associate, Brad Golden, was intrigued by the news of the new system.
Lately, he said, airport security has hardly been noticeable.
"We're not finding the security that difficult now, anyway," Golden said. "If they can make it better than it is, we're not complaining."
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