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Metal Detectors Will Take Center Stage in New Era

Security: Old machinery causes many checkpoint delays. Not under the TSA, Washington says.

June 14, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Airline passengers have grown accustomed to long lines at security checkpoints as they wait to pass through metal detectors. Most accept the inconvenience patiently--even patriotically--as a necessary consequence of increased security.

But it turns out that many of the delays are the result of obsolete equipment rather than keen vigilance. They stem from metal detectors that can't distinguish pocket change from a pistol, government and industry officials say.

Moreover, many of the current airport magnetometers have other flaws that make them less than 100% effective at finding real weapons. For example, they don't measure down to the floor and therefore would miss a knife that was artfully concealed in a shoe.

"The old ones kick out about 25% to 30% of the people going through," said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of a House panel that oversees transportation funding. "The new ones kick out about 7% and measure all the way to the floor. They are capable of discerning the difference between a tack in your shoe and a weapon."

The government has promised that passengers will have to wait no more than 10 minutes to clear checkpoints after federal screeners complete their takeover of security this fall at 429 airports with regular airline service. The lowly metal detector is belatedly emerging as one of the main variables in that equation.

Thousands of people are now being pulled aside and "wanded" with hand-held metal detectors because they set off an alarm at the initial screening. With newer machines, about three-quarters of those passengers would pass through with no problem. "Hopefully, there'd be a lot less shoe-removing," Rogers said.

Metal detectors received scant attention after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as Congress focused on requiring checked bags to be screened for explosives.

Most of the machines in use at airports were inherited from the airlines, which had a long-standing policy of keeping security costs as low as possible. Now, the Transportation Security Administration is scrambling to write tougher standards for airport metal detectors. Congress is considering authorizing $20 million to $25 million to buy modern machines as part of an emergency funding bill for anti-terrorism programs.

"A new specification is being developed," said Ken Lauterstein, security technology manager for the TSA. "Within the security area, equipment becomes obsolete as time goes on. This is part of our continuous improvement program."

The vagaries of airport metal detectors have mystified Mark Greenfield, a Los Angeles lawyer who regularly travels on business. After the attacks, Greenfield began packing his keys, change, cell phone, pens and other metallic items in a plastic bag. He places that in his briefcase, which goes through the airport X-ray machine.

Greenfield reasoned that a little preparation on his part would keep him from setting off alarms and having to undergo wanding. But that's not always the case, he has found.

"I have had business trips where, in the course of the same day, I have gone through two or more metal detectors wearing the same clothing and accessories," Greenfield said. "One I set off, and the other I didn't, but nothing on my person had changed."

When a metal detector beeps, Greenfield said he usually is wanded and asked to remove his shoes for inspection. Sometimes, he also is patted down.

To Rogers, that represents a waste of taxpayer money. Unreliable equipment means the TSA has to hire thousands of additional employees to perform wand searches and shoe checks that might otherwise be unnecessary. With a projected force of 65,000 screeners, the TSA is on its way to becoming the biggest federal law enforcement agency.

"If [new] magnetometers can save the need for a lot of hand-wanders and shoe-carriers and all of that, let's do it now," Rogers said. "It would save the need for a lot of personnel, not to mention the inconvenience to travelers."

Metal detectors work by generating an electromagnetic field and then measuring changes in that field caused by the presence of metal objects. Newer metal detectors can direct operators to the area of the body where a gun or knife might be hidden.

Industry officials say that federal aviation security authorities have not taken a close look at metal detector technology for a decade. In the meantime, Canada and Europe have instituted more rigorous standards and purchased modern machines for their airports.

The current U.S. standards, written by the Federal Aviation Administration, are geared to finding guns, not knives. An industry paper circulating in Washington says that the U.S. standards now in force only require a detection rate of 83% for a test sample of three firearms.

"In the past, the FAA had little or no interest in metal detectors and spent most of its time on explosives detection," said aviation consultant Douglas Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines. "Now that TSA is taking over security, it's facing a dilemma."

As the TSA develops new standards for metal detectors, one issue is whether the agency will require 100% detection of test weapons before it approves a particular brand of machine. Accuracy in finding knives is another.

Lauterstein, the TSA official, declined to release any details about the new standards under discussion. However, he hinted that they would require machines that can find hidden knives as well as guns.

"When you're looking to process hundreds of people an hour, you don't want a line three blocks long," Laird said. "You need a metal detector that has the ability to differentiate between box cutters and a pocketful of quarters."

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