Tampa Airport Adding Six More Explosive Detectors

The trace portals will save passengers time by eliminating the need for patdowns and wands, a TIA official said.

TAMPA - Passenger screening at Tampa International Airport will soon slow down in order to speed up and become more efficient.

The Transportation Security Administration is buying six new puffer machines, enough to equip each of TIA's four airsides with at least one high-tech explosive detector.

Passengers who go through the machines - called trace portals - will be chosen at random "to avoid creating patterns the bad guys can figure out," said TIA's federal security director, Dario Compain.

The six new puffers, built by General Electric, should be installed by late spring at a cost to the Transportation Security Administration of $1.02-million, or $170,000 each. There will be two each in Airsides A, C and E and one in Airside F, the smallest of the four facilities. Now there is one in Airside C.

The puffers blow light streams of air at passengers standing inside. The sensation is one of a light breeze, though it is sufficient to dislodge microscopic traces of explosives from hair, skin and clothing, which the machine's sniffing capabilities can identify.

It takes 15 to 20 seconds to complete the screening, Compain told the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board Thursday, three to four times what it takes to walk through a metal detector. But because the machine eliminates the need for wand screening and patdowns, they will save time. After passing through the trace portals, passengers will still have to go through the metal detectors.

"The combination provides much better security because the new machines detect explosives, and the arches only detect metal," Compain said.

Having seven portals instead of one means more passengers will be screened, but still only 20 to 30 percent of those boarding at TIA, Compain said. While the airport is a leader among major airports in the use of the technology, none has enough to accommodate 100 percent of passengers.

The fancy electronics are backed up by 550 human screeners at TIA, though the airport is only authorized to have 483. No one will be laid off, Compain said. The difference will be equalized over time by attrition.

Easing traffic snarls

Changes in the way rental cars are returned to the airport should alleviate traffic jams encountered along the inbound George Bean Parkway during spring break as thousands of visitors to Florida try to return vehicles before catching flights home, officials said.

From mid February through Easter, the lower level of the long-term parking garage will be reserved for incoming rental cars. The cars also will have access to the garage on a ramp expanded from one to two lanes, said airport Executive Director Louis Miller.

"The weeks from Presidents Day through Easter are the airport's busiest time of the year," Miller said. "But that's because of visitors coming to Florida, not because of local residents leaving. It will mean we lose 500 spaces during that period, but it is not a peak demand time for parking in the long-term garage."

TIA, the seventh largest airport rental car market in the country, can handle rental returns at a rate of 770 an hour. But during spring break, Miller said, cars can return at a rate of 2,000 an hour.

Designating more garage space for those vehicles and the ramp expansion should accommodate those peaks, he said.

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