New Machine Huffs, Puffs, and Blows Cover of Ohio Airport Bombers

An airport-security device called "the puffer," which sniffs out whether passengers have been around explosives, could be installed in Port Columbus this year.

The idea is simple: passengers step into a portal about the size of a phone booth and are hit with short bursts of air. Particles dislodged by the air are screened by the machine for trace amounts of explosives.

Tom Rice, Transportation Security Administration director in Columbus, said Port Columbus could receive the machine shortly.

The TSA started using the walk-through explosives detector at security checkpoints at six airports across the country in 2004 and has installed them in an additional 20 since then.

About $28.3 million in federal money has been allocated to purchase and install an additional 147 machines in 2006, the agency said.

Last month, the TSA eased rules to allow passengers to carry small scissors and tools so the agency could focus more attention on preventing high-risk items such as explosives from getting on board.

"We have talked about getting to the detection and prevention of explosives on board aircraft," said Darrin Kayser, a TSA spokesman in Washington. "This technology allows us to do that."

The puffer is used as a secondary screener after passengers have passed through a metal detector and their carry-on bags have been scanned.

"In a matter of seconds, the machine will give you sort of a green light," Kayser said.

The agency would not discuss specific particles that the machine detects, "but we do recommend people who may have been golfing or dealing with fertilizer that they very thoroughly clean their shoes and their clubs to make sure those particles are not on you," Kayser said.

He said that so far, the detectors have proved "very reliable."

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas got the machines last year.

"People are kind of inquisitive about them," airport spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez said. "They are not intimidated by it and the lines have been going relatively smoothly."

General Electric, one of two manufacturers of the machines, has developed a number of other explosive detectors used at airports, banks, courthouses and other places.

The puffer "is what we hope is a much less intrusive method of screening passengers," said Steve Hill, of GE Security.

"Nothing physically touches you except several puffs of air and it is a completely painless experience."

He said GE is working on a "checkpoint of the future" that will screen passengers without making them take off coats or shoes, empty pockets or remove laptops from bags.

The TSA at Port Columbus and other airports already swabs suitcases to look for explosives or trace amounts in the luggage.

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