Director of the TSA’s Innovation Task Force, which tests new security technologies, J. “I don’t think anybody said we’d do things the way we’ve done them,” Matt Gilkeson said. “We want to be beyond where we were 20 years ago.”
With the TSA’s birthday approaching, we checked in with the agency to learn about the latest security developments and what the future may hold for travelers and their toiletries.
Do not remove electronics and liquids anymore
If you’re one of the 25 million members of TSA PreCheck, you can skip this section. As you know, faithful travelers can keep their electronics and quart-sized pouches of Lilliputian liquids, gels, pastes and creams in their carry-ons at security checkpoints. The rest of you: The good news is underway, if not already underfoot.
Beginning in 2019, TSA is acquiring and deploying computed tomography (CT) X-ray systems, the same technology that hospitals use for patients and on TSA checked bags. The agency initially purchased 300 CT scanners and has grown its inventory to over 1,230 machines. Airports are installing the technology at a steady pace. (Note: Not all of the nation’s 430 federalized airports incorporate new technology at the same time, due to budget and staffing constraints. So what you experience at one airport may not be the same at another.)
No, you still cannot bring marijuana through a TSA checkpoint
“Waiting in the 21 lane? A banner sign at Washington-Dulles International Airport reads, Keep all items in your bag. “Including . . . computers, cell phones and tablets!”
Three-dimensional machines provide a more detailed and comprehensive picture of the bag’s contents than earlier two-dimensional models. In addition, TSA officers can electronically poke the interior of luggage, reducing the frequency of manual bag checks.
“It’s like a CAT scan machine,” Scott T. Johnson, the TSA’s director of federal security at Dulles, said. “You can rotate it and look at it from different angles, or slice it, grind it and [virtually] Take something out of the bag.”
If the machine detects suspicious organic matter, it will issue an alert. Officers with additional training for 3D scanners have discovered many things that, despite their apparent innocuousness, often raise warnings.
“The machine doesn’t like deodorant,” said TSA officer JD Pugh, as he scrutinized a screen displaying the contents of a Dulles passenger’s bag. Oddly enough, Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce also sets off the alarm.
An Illustrated Guide for Airport People
Gilkeson said identifying the object is five years away. “We’re testing here,” he said, referring to a facility in a former post office on the grounds of Reagan National Airport, “and in an operational environment.” (If you’re curious about the latest developments, visit the TSA Lab for Security Technology at Las Vegas’ Harry Reid International Airport, home of the Innovation Checkpoint.)
The new machines, which are snow white with a bulbous midsection and colored lights, streamline safety on several fronts. For example, travelers store all their bags in bins, which transport goods in a neat and orderly fashion like widgets in a factory assembly line. The trays are tagged with RFID, which helps officials track the status of the items in the bins.
“We’re matching images with bins and stuff,” Gilkeson said, “but not with people yet.”
After the cans exit the scanner, they are sent one of two ways: to a passenger waiting on the other side, or to a place where officials will perform additional screening. Empty containers, meanwhile, will return to their starting point, eliminating the shortage of containers at the entry point and the pile-up at the finish line.
The best restaurants in America’s busiest airports
There are machines at nearly 100 airports, including several international facilities such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, Baltimore-Washington, Chicago O’Hare, Miami and Los Angeles. An agency spokesman said the equipment will become as ubiquitous as an X-ray machine, unless (or until) new technology replaces it.
As not every checkpoint or lane is equipped with a CT scanner, look for the signs or listen to the officer’s instructions. If an employee asks you to keep your electronics and liquids inside, keep your bags zipped up.
More than 3.4 ounces of liquid? not yet
Unfortunately, we’re going to be stuck with mini-toilets and temporary caffeine withdrawals for the foreseeable future, if not longer. Technology is not advanced enough to quickly determine whether a large container of shampoo or a travel mug full of coffee contains explosives.
Passengers with exceptions, such as people traveling with infants, nursing parents or passengers with medical needs, may carry no more than 3.4 ounces of liquid. However, TSA requires additional screening to ensure the safety of these liquids. Passengers in this group should be advised of the safety of their medically necessary fluids.
The TSA said screening of breastfeeding mothers did not meet ‘standards’
The officer will place the liquid container into an explosive detection device that looks like an Easy-Bake oven. If the light turns green, passengers — and liquids — are free to proceed. If the red light flashes, the officer will hold a test strip over the bottle and give it a slight squeeze. If the vapors do not change color, the item is considered safe. A different color means that the liquid is unsafe and cannot pass through the checkpoint. Passengers have the option of sending it in their checked baggage or surrendering it.
The process takes several minutes, a delay that may seem insignificant to the individual passenger but persistent to everyone else waiting in line for their turn.
“It’s not feasible for everyone to screen large volumes of liquid,” Gilkeson said. “We want to speed up time.”
You take off your coat, but maybe not your shoes
The season is approaching when PreCheck members must adhere to one of the rules that apply to Standard passengers year-round: removing their heavy outerwear.
“The machine can’t penetrate your coat to see your skin reflection,” Gilkeson said. “Don’t know your jacket is a jacket.”
You asked: Is it ever okay to sit in line at TSA?
For footwear, the wide range of shoe materials is a boon for the fashionista but a bust for the scanning machine. “There are so many types of shoes, we want to reduce the false alarm rate,” he said, “You have to know your shoes. Do they have metal?”
To accommodate the diversity of shoes, the agency has launched a pilot program testing machines that inspect clothing items from the ground up. Basically, you’re stepping on a scanner. One way to avoid removing your shoes: If a TSA bomb-sniffing dog checks you in line and moves on. An uneventful whiff means you’ve passed the test and can keep your shoes on.
Gilkeson admits that no one enjoys a pat-down.
“We want to get out of the business of touching people,” he said.
TSA has made it a priority to create a more welcoming environment at security checkpoints, particularly for transgender passengers. If a pat-down is required, the agency will no longer assign male or female officers based on a passenger’s appearance, which could lead to an uncomfortable public conversation about gender identity. Instead, officers will press a single button (previously they had pressed a male or female button). And passengers can choose the gender of the officer of their choice. TSA announced the program in March and will begin software upgrades to Leidos Advanced Imaging Technology by the end of the year, with the goal of completing the update by next fall.
#TravelingWhileTrans: The trauma of returning to ‘normal’
Also on the sensitivity docket: case pats. Gilkeson said TSA is looking for ways to eliminate the controversial process, which can cause trouble for travelers whose hair styles are related to cultural practices or religious beliefs.
Expect simplified recognition
The TSA is rolling down the road to self-security, a trend that will give passengers more responsibilities and autonomy in things like check-in and baggage tagging.
“Security is becoming more and more automated,” Gilkeson said.
Passengers who fly out of an airport with a Credential Authentication Technology Unit do not need to present their boarding pass to an officer. An official form of identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, will suffice. The system is operational at around 1,300 travel document checker podiums at airports across the country.
How to Choose the Best Airport Line-Cutting Service for You
In the next level of DIY security, passengers will scan their IDs themselves, a trend related to the contactless movement born during the pandemic. The ID card syncs with airline booking information and informs the officer that the ID bearer is a ticketed passenger and eligible to proceed through security. Future ID-checks may also include a camera that takes a passenger’s photo and matches their facial image to their ID.
“The machine is looking for bone structure,” Gilkeson said.
The agency is testing the technology in precheck lanes at airports in Baltimore, Atlanta, Phoenix and DCA. “People think it’s hand sanitizer,” he said of the dispenser-like devices.
The long-term goal is to install e-gates at metro stations as simple as swiping their cards to allow passengers to pass through security quickly and painlessly.
Of course, not all of TSA’s technology is successful. At three New York and New Jersey airports, puffer machines that blow air at passengers resemble holograms that provide security checkpoint information and directions. The holograms failed because passengers were too hurried or too distracted to stop and listen to the talking light.