New screening machines unveiled at airport

By Curt Yeomans


The process takes only seconds, and the machines look like a large cylinder similar to a pneumatic tubes at a bank drive-in window.

However, Transportation Security Administration officials believe the millimeter wave machines, being unveiled today at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, will improve security checkpoints for travelers and TSA agents.

Passengers, who are selected for a more thorough security search, and those who set off metal detectors, will be given the option of receiving a pat down, or going through the millimeter wave machine. "For many passengers, a pat down is not comfortable, and it's certainly not something they look forward to," Allen said. "This way, they can be checked for weapons without the physical contact."

Two new wave machines are located at the main TSA security checkpoint, between the North and South terminals, and another is set up at the checkpoint for international travelers. The machines allow agents to check passengers for weapons without using a pat down.

"Our security protocol is based in layers," said Jon Allen, a spokesman for the TSA. "The metal detector is a layer. The pat down is another layer. This particular machine adds another layer of security for us. It allows us to detect metallic items that are on [or in] a person."

Hartsfield-Jackson is the 17th airport to gain millimeter wave technology. In 2007, Phoenix was the first airport to install the machines. There are 34 millimeter wave machines installed at U.S. airports, and another 80 planned next year, said Allen. The machines costs $170,000 each, he added.

Scanning from a millimeter wave machine is quick and simple. A passenger is asked by a TSA agent to raise both arms. Scanners quickly spin around the person. The passenger is then asked to turn to the side, hands stretched forward, pointing at the floor. The scanner spins around again.

"The whole process takes about a minute, which is the same amount of time it would take to go through a full pat down," said Allen.

In a small room, which is a few feet away, another agent watches the three-dimensional rotating image transmitted from the machine to a computer. The electromagnetic waves, which are emitted from the scanners, detect energy received from the passenger's body and any metallic item or any metallic plates.

The agent at the computer can see anything on, or in the person. However, an agent is forbidden from allowing anyone else from seeing the images received from the machine. For the privacy of the passenger, the agent can not have cameras or cell phones in the monitoring room.

The passenger's face is blurred to protect his or her identity, but the agent at the computer is in radio contact with the agents at the machines at all times. They can alert the machine's operators to any metallic objects before the passenger steps out of the machine.

The energy emitted by the machine's scanners are 10,000 times less than the energy emitted by a cell phone, according to a TSA press release. "It's safe for children, and pregnant women," said Allen.