Full-body scanners raise privacy, time concerns, but N.J. travelers say safety is worth the wait
Published: Sunday, August 22, 2010, 10:30 AM Updated: Sunday, August 22, 2010, 4:17 PM
Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger
AP Photo/Jon SuperStaff members are seen demonstrating a new full body security scanner at Manchester Airport in England, in a January 2010 file photo.
ARLINGTON, Va. — Almost by rote, Trevor Michael removed his shoes and his belt, and emptied his wallet, keys, change and other personal effects into a plastic tray to be X-rayed. Like most airline passengers in the post-9/11 era, the 52-year-old Plainsboro man knows the drill.
But then came the unfamiliar part, involving the latest technology deployed by the Transportation Security Administration to make the skies less friendly to terrorists: the full-body scanner.
Although Michael frequently travels for his real estate investment business, he had never experienced a full-body scan. Flying back to New Jersey from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., last week, he had his first experience.
He’s likely to have many more. Under an accelerated rollout of the technology this year, a slightly different type of full-body scanner than those used at Reagan National are scheduled to arrive at Newark Liberty International, John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports next month.
Waiting at the gate in Arlington, Michael and other passengers flying from Reagan National to Newark Liberty last Wednesday described the scanner experience as a tolerable inconvenience for the sake of safer flying. Like others, he had to be guided through the process step by literal step.
First, Michael was directed by a TSA screener to step into a millimeter wave scanner, a cylindrical booth of metal and glass about 5 feet in diameter, open on opposite sides.
Another screener told him to spread his stocking feet on a pair of yellow footprints and to place his hands above his head, palms forward. He stood there, hands-up, for five seconds or so, while the machine performed an electromagnetic scan. Michael said he didn’t feel a thing. A third screener told him to step out into a cordoned area and wait, while his image was viewed by yet another screener.
After about 10 seconds, Michael was let out of the cordoned area and patted down around his waist. He wasn’t given a reason for the pat-down, and in the sober, somewhat intimidating environment, he didn’t ask. Finally, he was allowed to collect his belongings and, about 45 seconds after first taking off his shoes, proceed to his departure gate and the 39-minute flight home to New Jersey.
“I thought it was pretty painless,” Michael said afterward. “It was about what I thought it was going to be, so didn’t have any problem.”
“It took a little bit more time than going through the metal detector,” he added. “But safety is my number one priority.”
Michael’s assessment echoed that of other fliers scanned at Reagan National last week. Passengers who fly out of New York and New Jersey will soon be able to judge for themselves, though the TSA says no specific dates in September have been set for their deployment.
As of last week, the TSA said 174 scanning machines had been deployed at 48 airports across the country. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport received the first scanner n 2007.
To date, the TSA says it has spent $81 million on 492 scanners, including $41.2 million for 250 X-ray backscatter machines from Rapiscan Systems of Torrance, Calif., and $39.7 million for 242 ProVision millimeter wave scanners from L3 Communications of New York. President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget includes $88 million to purchase an additional 500 imaging technology units.
But the bigger cost of the technology has been in personnel.
At an agency that now employees some 50,000 workers nationwide, the TSA’s fiscal 2011 budget calls for 5,355 new positions specifically related to scanner technology, at a cost of $219 million, according to the agency.
“It seems pretty labor intensive,” said Brian Franklin, 36, of Arlington, Va., a Washington-based public relations rep for a New Jersey pharmaceutical company, after he had just been scanned for his flight from Reagan National to Newark Liberty last week. “You figure there’s one person before you get in, one person after, and one person working in a back room. So that means three people working for every one person who gets scanned.”
IT TAKES LONGER
But the main complaint is that the scanners take more time.
“It’s not as fast as if you just walked through a metal detector,” said Tom Holt, 62, of Kearny, a real estate asset manager for Wells Fargo who was flying back to New Jersey after a business trip to the nation’s capital. “Other than that, it was fine.”
EPA/Matthew CavanaughA Transportation Security Administration volunteer takes part in a demonstration of a millimeter wave imaging technology screening at the TSA’s Systems Integration Facility in Arlington, Virginia.
The TSA insists that the scanners are an effective means of screening passengers that, despite the privacy concerns of some, are actually less intrusive than other methods of screening for non-metallic objects.
And while conceding the scanners cannot detect threatening items stored inside body cavities, the agency insists they are the most effective means yet of detecting weapons or explosives that would not be caught by metal detectors.
“This technology addresses non-metallic threats, and does so without any physical contact, which is something we’re finding is often a preference for travelers, and obviously eliminates the need for a pat-down, provided the passenger does not trigger an alarm,” said Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman.
For passengers still concerned about their health or privacy, the agency reiterates that scanning is optional, and passengers can choose instead a standard metal detector in conjunction with a pat-down. Despite the alternative, Davis said 98 percent of fliers chose to be scanned.
Signs were posted at the checkpoint at Reagan National last week advising passengers that scanners were in use and that they were optional, though several passengers said later they were not aware they could have opted out.
One of them, Morgan Vaughan, 26, a corporate researcher from Arlington, Va., who was headed to Newark for a connecting flight to Hawaii, said she had been scanned, wanded, metal-detected and otherwise screened in the course of her travels. None of the options was appealing, Vaughan said. But all were acceptable, she added, if they made flying more secure.
“Like this morning, getting patted down,” she said. “Like, great way to start the day! You know, not ideal. But, hey, if that’s what we have to do, we have to do it.”
© 2010 NJ.com. All rights reserved.
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