TSA wants faster security screening at airports, too

A traveler walks past a newly-opened TSA Pre-check application center at Terminal C of the LaGuardia Airport on January 27, 2014 in New York City. 

The Department of Homeland Security has put out a "help wanted" sign of sorts. It's asking private contractors to come up with technology that can speed screening at airports around the country. Perhaps it's tiring of all the grumbling as passengers shuffle through TSA lines, resentfully disrobing and fumbling with their laptops?

Perry Flint, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, says everybody wants faster security lines. Since 9/11, he says, the time it takes to process passengers through airport security has more than doubled. At the same time, more people are flying.

"You can see the problem is that lines will get longer," he says. "So the industry is well aware of this, and governments are well aware of this.”

Those "governments" include federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which includes the TSA. The agency is hoping companies will develop a "screen and walk" machine, preferably where passengers don’t have to take off coats, shoes, jackets, belts, jewelry and the rest. 

"The system will detect an explosive or assembled IED with and without divestiture of outer garments, shoes and through clutter depending on the deployment," according to the government request. "In addition, detection should occur through a minimum of 2 layers of clothing concealment where those layers are composed of cotton, cotton-polyester, wool, silk and leather materials among others."

Douglas Laird, an aviation security consultant and a former security chief for Northwest Airlines, says there’s still a lot of R&D needed before airports can boast technology that will allow passengers to just glide through security. Besides, passengers have to be comfortable with the technology as well. Remember the uproar over the x-ray "backscatter" machines, criticized for producing body images of passengers that were too revealing?

Richard Bloom, security expert and chief academic officer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says in the end, faster security lines will come from technology paired with better intelligence.

"Otherwise we’ll be screening in a faster way, a better way about people and things that really don’t pose a significant threat," says Bloom. "And then there’ll be more danger to the general public, not less." 

That’s why the airlines hope the TSA can quickly expand its budding "Pre-Check" program, where fliers can get five years of expedited security checks in exchange for a background check, their fingerprints, and $85.

Perry Flint at the IATA says airport security technology is advancing quickly. He says the industry is working toward a new and improved security system where passengers "proceed through the security checkpoint with minimal need to divest, where security resources are allocated based on risk, and where airport amenities can be maximized."

Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly, senses an increasing impatience with the TSA lines at U.S. airports.

"After 9/11 people understandably said, 'We need things to be as safe as possible.' But now, airlines and consumers alike are saying, 'What are we getting for all the money we’re spending? And just as importantly, for all the time we’re spending waiting in line?' So the question is, is there a cheaper and/or faster way to do all this, but that’s just as safe, but less of a hassle?"

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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