'Puffing' at the Newark Airport

The Jersey airport gets the latest in explosive detection technology.


Airline passengers have become used to being scanned, wanded and, if they're really unlucky, patted down. Now, they may be puffed.

The Transportation Security Administration on Tuesday began using a new explosives-detection machine at Newark Liberty International Airport's Terminal A that uses puffs of air to dislodge any bomb residue from a passenger's skin or clothing.

The particles are collected and screened for traces of explosives -- all in about 14 seconds.

"The trace portal is just another new addition to our efforts to deter any terrorist act, not only at this airport, but throughout the system," said the TSA's security director at Newark Liberty, Marcus Arroyo.

The agency has been testing the machines at 14 airports across the country, including John F. Kennedy International Airport. By September, the TSA plans to have the machines in 11 other airports, with 100 in use by 2006.

"It is not intrusive technology," said Mark Laustra, a vice president with Smiths Detection of Pine Brook, one of two companies manufacturing the machines for the TSA. "The passenger is only subjected to gentle puffs of air. There's no records kept of the passengers. There's no digital film or anything else kept of the passengers."

The blue-and-silver portals are as futuristic-looking as the name suggests.

Passengers who are screened by the machine -- not all passengers are selected -- step into the portal, lining up their feet with two yellow footsteps at the bottom.

Then 40 air jets begin pumping small blasts of air, from head to toe, as a vacuum at the bottom of the portal collects particles that are blown from the passenger's skin and clothes.

After a flier walks into the detection portal, 40 air jets gently blast air to dislodge particles clinging to the skin, hair or clothes. An overhead fan pushes the air down, and a vacuum at the bottom collects the particles, which are then analyzed by the machine.

The machine is programmed to detect explosives, including Semtex, the plastic explosive believed to have been used to down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

The machine screens the particles collected, and if they are identified as explosive elements, a visual alarm is triggered. If nothing is found, the passenger is told by the machine to exit.

"It is so sensitive, working in nanograms, to detect explosives, that when it dislodges any particulates of explosives on your body, it will pick it up," Arroyo said.

Because the machines are programmed to detect nitrates and other elements found in explosives, Laustra said there will be false alarms. Triggers could include some types of heart medication, or traces of fertilizer on the skin.

But Laustra said that during the testing phase, false alarms were reported in only 1 percent of the screenings.

Laustra said the machines can screen someone in as little as six seconds. But because the time depends upon how well passengers follow instructions, they expect it will not go as quickly, especially early on.

The TSA expects it will take about 14 seconds for each screening, allowing them to screen about 180 passengers per hour.

Although the machines add another layer to the screening process, Arroyo said they should actually reduce the number of pat-downs that are done on computer-selected passengers.

It is too early to deem the machines a success, said Ian Redhead, vice president for facilities and services for the Airports Council International-North America, a trade group. "The processing times are relatively slow, but it has its advantages. It's another layer of security."

Arroyo said that by the end of the summer, Newark should have five of the machines, which cost between $160,000 and $170,000 each. TSA screeners began using the first machine at Terminal A on Tuesday afternoon.

Laustra said the machines also are being used at some nuclear power plants and at Toronto's CN Tower.

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