New scanners may end laptop ban in plane cabin

Contents of a bag are revealed by an X-ray scanner. The new scanners borrow CT scan technology from the medical world to create 3D, high-definition views inside a bag to better detect explosives.
Contents of a bag are revealed by an X-ray scanner. The new scanners borrow CT scan technology from the medical world to create 3D, high-definition views inside a bag to better detect explosives.PHOTO: REUTERS

The machines can better detect explosives but US security agent wants further testing before deploying them

WASHINGTON • Manufacturers of airport security equipment have a message for travellers who fear they will have to give up laptops and tablet computers on international flights: They have a solution.

At least four of the largest companies making screening devices say they are developing scanners so much better at detecting explosives than existing X-ray machines that passengers could leave laptops, other electronics and even liquids in their bags, vastly simplifying airport security.

"It's a no brainer," said Mr Joseph Paresi, chief executive officer of Integrated Defense & Security Solutions, which has developed one of the new scanning machines that has passed initial United States government testing. "It's not if. It's when it's going to happen."

But the speed with which US, European and other security agencies can put them into widespread use remains uncertain.

After being burned by attempts to roll out new screening equipment in the past - such as having to warehouse hundreds of so-called puffer machines designed to detect explosives because they did not perform well in real-world conditions a decade ago - the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has instituted layers of performance tests.

And the US Congress has not appropriated funds for large-scale purchases of the machines. Adding the devices, which cost several hundred thousand dollars each, at thousands of airport security lines in just the US could cost US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) or more.

The US Department of Homeland Security in March banned electronic devices larger than a mobile phone from airliner cabins on flights from 10 Middle Eastern and North African airports to the US, citing concerns that terrorists had created ways to conceal explosives in them.

Since then, the agency has been considering expanding the ban to Europe - over the objections of the European Commission and air carriers.

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly has not reached a decision on whether to extend the ban to Europe, spokesman David Lapan said at a briefing last week.

For the moment, there is also no plan to expand it to flights departing from US airports, either for international or domestic trips, Mr Lapan said.

"We will make a decision in the best interest of the United States," he said last Wednesday.

At the same time, TSA is conducting tests of closer screening procedures for electronics at 10 US airports with an eye towards expanding them nationwide.

Groups representing airlines and airports say they are hopeful that new technology can ease the need for the new security measures.

"The ban on large personal electronic devices in the cabin has certainly highlighted the importance of governments stepping up their support for more capable checkpoint screening technology to respond to emerging threats," Mr Perry Flint, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) trade group, said in an interview.

IATA represents 265 airlines around the world.

There is optimism over the ability of these machines - which borrow computed tomography, or CT scan, technology from the medical world to create a high-definition, 3D view inside a bag - to address the new threats.

The TSA has tested two of the devices and plans to place one of each in airports later this year to study how they operate in the trying environment of airport security lanes. The devices are built by IDSS and L3 Technologies.

TSA spokesman Michael England said in an e-mailed statementthat more testing would be needed before the new technology can be rolled out nationwide.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline 'New scanners may end laptop ban in plane cabin'. Print Edition | Subscribe