A government lab is testing a "very promising" new machine that would allow airline passengers to keep their shoes on while going through security checkpoints, the nation's aviation security chief said Thursday.
The machine, which detects explosive material on shoes when people stand on a platform, is getting a "highly expedited" review at the lab, said Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
"We are looking at this with great interest," Hawley said. "Anything that speeds up explosive detection through the checkpoint, we want to encourage."
He wouldn't give a timetable for deploying the machines. They must pass testing in an airport before they are used to screen passengers.
The ShoeScanner uses technology similar to a medical MRI to detect explosives in 5 to 8 seconds. It shoots radio waves at shoes to agitate molecules and analyze their structure.
Readings are sent to a computer that holds a library of explosives characteristics and makes a rapid comparison.
Removing shoes at checkpoints has been one of the biggest inconveniences for passengers in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Passengers have been urged to remove thick-soled shoes at checkpoints since Richard Reid tried to blow up a Paris-to-Miami plane in late 2001 using plastic explosive hidden in his sneakers.
"The question is: Can you operate and deploy (the machine) and have people walk on it without it breaking down?" Hawley said. "It's sensitive electronic equipment."
The TSA has been searching for technology that detects explosives better than the X-ray machines and metal detectors now used at checkpoints.
The ShoeScanner is being developed by GE Security, a General Electric subsidiary that makes the "puffer" portals deployed at dozens of U.S. airports that blow air jets at passengers to detect explosives residue.
The government's Transportation Security Lab in New Jersey also is testing GE's Itemiser, which detects explosives on passengers when they press a finger on an electronic reader.
The ShoeScanner and Itemiser would first be used only in checkpoint lanes reserved for travelers who pass a background check and pay an annual fee to get faster security under a Registered Traveler program starting in June. Airports and private companies will run the voluntary program. The TSA wants them to pay for new detection machines that may let participants keep their shoes or coats on through checkpoints.
Those machines could ultimately be used for ordinary travelers. "That could be the big payoff for the Registered Traveler program," Hawley said.
GE Security is a minority owner of Verified Identity Pass, a Manhattan company with contracts to run Registered Traveler in Orlando, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and San Jose airports.
"Registered Travelers would be far more secure than anybody going through the regular (security) lanes," Verified Identity CEO Steven Brill said. The ShoeScanner "is a better way to test shoes than putting them through an X-ray."
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