Getting through airport security can feel like a juggling act: Travelers try to pull laptops and liquids from overstuffed bags and remove shoes and jackets, all without dropping anything or holding up the line.
That screening might never be hassle-free, but a new scanner at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport might someday eliminate the need to unpack those quart-size bags of liquids.
The new computed tomography scanner at O’Hare’s Terminal 1 produces three-dimensional images that Transportation Security Administration agents can view from different angles to get a better view of the contents of passengers’ bags.
Passengers may not see the new scanner in use until after the holidays — the TSA still needs to test it and train the employees who will operate it.
Airports in Phoenix and Boston were the first to test the technology in June 2017. The CT scanners are now in nearly two dozen airports, and the TSA plans to have more than 190 scanners in use by the end of next year, said TSA spokesman Mark Howell.
If the new technology lives up to its promise, giving TSA agents a better view of bags being scanned will mean they won’t have to do as many hands-on searches, making security more efficient for passengers.
The TSA doesn’t have data yet on whether the new scanners have increased efficiency. The machines seem to reduce the need for hands-on bag checks, Howell said, but as with any new technology, there’s a learning curve for both agents and passengers.
“We expect it will get better as time goes on,” he said.
O’Hare will be the first airport to combine the CT scanner with a new type of screening lane first introduced at O’Hare in late 2016. The newer lanes let multiple passengers place their bags in bins for screening at the same time and automatically divert bags flagged for extra review without halting those behind them. They also have a second conveyor system that shuttles empty bins back to the front of the line.
“It’s what we’re hoping the future of the checkpoints will be,” he said.
The TSA already uses CT scanners to screen passengers’ checked luggage. But until recently, those machines were too large to use at the security checkpoints passengers travel through on the way to the gate, Howell said.
The new machine, in the security checkpoint open to United Airlines passengers traveling first or business class and certain loyalty program members, is only slightly bigger than the traditional X-ray machines used to screen carry-on baggage.
But the images it creates are clearer and three-dimensional, unlike the flat X-ray images. That means TSA agents can rotate the image to get a better view of items in different parts of a bag. Computer algorithms scan the image to identify items that might warrant a closer look, like a laptop or container of liquid. A TSA agent can then view those items individually and, if they’re deemed OK to fly, digitally remove them from the image to make the remaining items easier to see.
Eventually, travelers may be able to leave more items in their bags when going through security. Travelers using the new scanners don’t have to remove laptops, Howell said. In the future, that could extend to liquids as well, but for now the usual rules still apply.
If O’Hare’s machine isn’t up and running before the holidays, that will leave the airport down one scanner during an extremely busy travel period. But Mike Hanna, who leads United’s operations at O’Hare, said he doesn’t expect that to pose a problem. Automated screening lanes added over the past two years have helped keep wait times short, he said, and the airline plans to add monitors letting customers know how long they can expect to wait in the coming year.
“It’s better to make sure all the bugs are worked out,” Howell said. “We want security and efficiency.”
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