Jan. 17--Beginning as early as this week, selected passengers at Sacramento International Airport checkpoints will get a breezy once-over from the newest device in the federal government's anti-terrorism tool box.
Called the "puffer," it's a walk-through machine, phone-booth size, that blows several bursts of air on the passenger, then tests that air for particles related to explosives.
The machines, also known as explosives trace portals, are part of a push by the federal Transportation Security Administration to focus more attention at passenger checkpoints on explosives detection.
"It is a continual progression," TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said of the state-of-the-art machines. "We need to stay one step ahead."
Passengers will be asked to stand in the portal for a brief time. The bursts of air will dislodge microscopic particles from the passengers' skin and clothes, TSA officials said. Those particles will then be sucked into the machine and analyzed.
"We don't talk about how much these machines can find, although they can detect very small amounts" of explosives-related materials, Melendez said.
The machines will reduce but not eliminate the number of hand or pat-down searches and body-wand searches that security workers conduct, he said.
Federal officials expect to install three such machines in Sacramento, one each at terminals A, B1 and B2. The machines are made by Smiths Detection, based in England and Connecticut, and cost more than $100,000 apiece.
"We like it, and we support it," said Sacramento airport executive Rob Leonard of TSA's stepped-up technology. "We see it as a better experience, maybe a little faster, and less intrusive than the pat-down and the wand."
Mike Golden, a national airport security official for Southwest Airlines, the major carrier in Sacramento, said his airline also endorses the machines. Golden called the machine "a solid piece of technology" that will add another layer of aviation security.
Two dozen airports nationally have had puffer machines installed since last year, federal officials said. By summer, the TSA hopes to have machines in use at the country's 40 largest airports.
The machines have been generally well received, airport officials and traveler advocates say.
"We have heard no complaints yet," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "People are a little startled the first time. Your hair blows a bit."
His group would eventually like to see all passengers pass through the puffers.
Elaine Sanchez, spokeswoman at Las Vegas' McCarran airport, said passengers "are actually curious how it works. You can hear it go pff, pff, pff! Some want just to try it."
Officials with San Francisco and Los Angeles airports report no issues with recently installed puffers.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, however, said his group is concerned the government may use the machines to detect other trace materials, such as illegal drugs.
"If the machines are limited to detecting explosives, then they are a step forward both for security and civil liberties from the pat-down searches and metal detectors," the ACLU's Barry Steinhardt said. "However, the technology can be used to identify anything that has a chemical trace, including, for example, drugs, so we wonder what this will morph into over time."
The ACLU has expressed its concerns to federal Homeland Security officials, Steinhardt said, but his group has not heard of any such problems so far.
Melendez said the ACLU's concern is misplaced. TSA is focused on detecting explosives, he said. "We don't screen for drugs."
Most passengers at Sacramento and other airports will not be asked to pass through a puffer, only those selected for secondary screening. TSA officials said they do not divulge the percentage of passengers who go through secondary screening.
Puffers are among several recent or upcoming security changes at airports, TSA officials said.
In December, the TSA started allowing passengers to bring scissors with blades smaller than 4 inches through security checkpoints. Screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers and other small tools, 7 inches or less, also now are allowed. TSA officials say that frees up workers to focus more on explosives detection.
TSA also is training security employees to engage some fliers in conversation to observe their behavior and decide whether they should undergo secondary screening.
John Frenaye, a travel columnist for www.tripso.com and a travel agency owner in Annapolis, Md., said Israel's El Al airline has successfully used a program like that. But he questions whether TSA employees have the skills to pick up cues about a person's mental state.
"They've had marginal training to do the job as it stands, and now you want to have them making a determination that someone's eye movements are a little bit shady?" he asked. "That seems like a professional interrogator's job, rather than a screener's job."