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Airports on Guard

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
May 25, 2007

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Eighty years ago this week, Charles Lindberg completed his famed transatlantic flight in just over thirty-three hours. Seeing how far we’ve come offers little comfort for modern travelers, who continue to blanch at long security lines and increased delays. With summer nearly here, travelers can expect to wait longer than ever: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it expects delays (NYT) this season to surpass last year’s record mark. To help mitigate the growing volume of air traffic, the FAA plans to employ new software (Aero-News) to aid the country’s air traffic controllers.

Airports and aviation officials hold out hope that technological innovation can improve the quality and efficiency of their security screening as well. This summer the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will deploy electronic “sniffers” (USAToday) designed to detect vapors given off by potentially explosive liquids. These will join a gaggle of other gadgets, including the traditional X-rays and metal detectors, as well as the relatively new “puffers” (BusinessWeek), which shoot bursts of air at passengers and analyze the loosed particles for traces of explosives. For baggage screening, the TSA has turned to CAT scanning technology (PDF) similar to that used in hospitals. Other technologies remain in the works: Quadrupole resonance scanners could use radio frequencies to screen baggage for explosives in bulk, while backscatter X-rays, a technology already employed at some checkpoints in Iraq, provides better images than current technology.

The challenges facing airports seem likely to grow in coming years. Record numbers of people take to the air almost every year, and the recent “open skies” transatlantic travel agreement promises to push those numbers ever upward. Increasingly adaptable and innovative terrorists only compound the problem.

In a new podcast, Boston’s Logan Airport security director George Naccara enumerates the continued vulnerabilities of U.S. airports. Against these myriad threats, technology is no silver bullet. While getting through security may exasperate passengers, this interactive game (MSNBC) demonstrates how checkpoints can become stressful environments for security personnel, too. As this Backgrounder explains, truly protecting our airports requires multiple layers of security, including heightened police presence, armed pilots, and intelligence operations like the one that foiled last summer’s liquid bomb plot. One rather unconventional layer of security involves training officers in behavior detection aimed at identifying passengers exhibiting signs of ill intent. In Logan Airport, Naccara says, all airport employees are trained to identify and report suspicious activity (TIME).  

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