Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New airport baggage screener sees all

State-of-the-art machine is one of only two in Idaho

Express Staff Writer

Security officer Jean Olson, left, demonstrates a new, high-tech baggage-screening machine at Friedman Memorial Airport on Monday. “This machine is very efficient. It makes our work a lot easier and it brings another level of security,” she said. Photo by Willy Cook

Weighing in at 5,000 pounds, a new baggage screener at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey probably should be known as "The Beast." Instead, this non-human addition to airport security is respectfully called by its proper and impressive actual name, Explosive Detection System.

Friedman is the second Idaho airport to install one of these enormous, new-generation baggage-screening machines. Idaho Falls Regional Airport was first; Boise's Gowen Field has an older version. New screening machines are scheduled for the Lewiston and Pocatello airports.

Installed with a steel-plate reinforcement on the Friedman terminal floor behind the SkyWest Airlines ticket counter, the $350,000 machine was funded by the Transportation Security Administration. TSA Idaho Manager Andrew Coose showcased it for the press on Monday as checked baggage for SkyWest and Horizon Air flights was loaded on a moving belt feeding luggage into its innards.

Coose suggested "think CAT scan" when trying to understand the detection system, manufactured by Reveal Imaging Technologies from New Bedford, Mass. The machine literally scans luggage like a hospital CAT scan captures body images while searching for tumors and other abnormalities.

Coose said the belt-fed scanner can handle 120 pieces of luggage per hour with a staff of three to four uniformed TSA officers nimbly loading them while watching and listening for light and audio alarms of suspicious content. They then either forward the bags with a stamped approval to the waiting airliners or set them aside for further checking.

During actual operations on Monday, reporters observed at least one alert. A bottle of wine set off alarms, Coose said. A TSA officer viewed not only the bottle, circled in red on a monitor screen, but "slices" of different views of it to provide further screening.

Had there been any further doubts about the bottle, Coose said, the bag would have been shifted to an adjoining table where sensitive "wipes" would be used to detect any signs of explosives by simply wiping the luggage.

Coose said the new system's operational track record is 100 percent. The secret, he said, is technology that can ignore harmless items but detect any liquid or other material used in explosives or weaponry.

For passengers, there may be a bonus other than state-of-the-art security: The machine will eliminate some of the need for TSA officials to methodically rummage through the contents of suitcases.

Unfortunately, Coose said passengers still must pass through the electronic gates and briefly remove their shoes for security clearance before boarding flights.

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