Anyone who has taken a flight in Europe or the US in the last few months is well aware that aviation security must remain flexible and responsive as new threats appear. The alleged plot to destroy planes in mid-flight between the UK and the US using liquid explosives not only prompted the current restrictions on bringing liquids onto aircraft, but also served as a reminder that the threat is more real than ever.

The London bomb plot in late 2006, which allegedly involved liquid components taken on board in carry-on luggage, required swift action by the aviation security authorities, and got just that. The current 3-1-1 code of practice for carry-on bags in the US limits bottle sizes to 3oz, all to be contained in one clear quart-size bag per person. Now the authorities are looking beyond immediate, short-term measures to more sophisticated and sustainable responses.

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), for instance, officially launched a search for advanced screening technology for carry-on baggage at the end of 2006. TSA, which was formed after the 9/11 attacks on New York, is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and employs security officers, inspectors, directors and air marshals to protect all domestic transportation systems. Over 31,000 TSA security officers have been trained to detect improvised explosive devices
(IEDs) or explosives in baggage.

Though it has a wide brief, its focus is now very much on screening in the aviation sector. The current project seeks to evaluate market-ready systems as candidates for the next generation of baggage screening technology. Detection of explosives is a priority, but it is by no means the only thing TSA will look at. Primarily, the new system should be able to detect potential metallic threats and explosive compounds simultaneously, or must at least be capable of upgrading to achieve those specifications.

TSA is keen to stress, however, that this is not a one-off programme. “TSA has been actively investing in and piloting new technology since its inception in November 2001,” says Ann Davis, TSA spokesperson and public affairs manager for the Northeast region. “In response to one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the agency has worked aggressively to test, certify, pilot and deploy varying types of explosive detection technologies to our nation’s airports over the last few years. We continue to work with the DHS and technology companies to identify new equipment that will assist our security officers in detecting liquid explosives. Effective technology is a key component of TSA’s innovative, risk-based approach to enhancing security.”


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Though the liquid detection process has proved successful, as when TSA security officers discovered explosive residues on two containers of liquid in a passenger’s carry-on bag at Huntington Tri-State Airport (HTS), TSA wants quicker, more efficient technology. For obvious reasons, it cannot discuss the technologies it is currently testing, nor can it offer a timeframe for deployment in case it sets unreasonable expectations. However, this year alone it has already deployed backscatter technology and bottled liquids scanners in pilot programmes.

“TSA has been actively investing in and piloting new technology since its inception in November 2001.”

Similar systems are being tested on other modes of transport, including the Staten Island Ferry, where a three-week pilot of advanced explosives detection technology took place as part of the Security Enhancement and Capabilities Augmentation Program (SEACAP), which focuses on explosives detection in the marine environment. During the trial programme, explosives screening is performed on passengers boarding the ferry using passive millimetre wave screening devices.

Whichever technologies are identified and validated for screening airline carry-on baggage, a key issue will be integrating that technology within the existing architecture of security devices and processes. The successful technology will not only be able to detect explosives effectively, but will also enable a balance between customer service and security.

“Before integrating any new technology, we must ensure that passengers and the airport won’t be adversely impacted,” notes Davis. “We also need to ensure that the airport has the space to accommodate the equipment, so that we can adequately train our security officers to operate the technology and we have a plan in place with the manufacturer to address any potential maintenance issues.”

Furthermore, the capability of the technology must be backed up by sound policy and procedures for dealing with any suspect packages, though again the agency cannot disclose much detail. “TSA has standard protocols in place to address any situation where traces of explosives have been detected or a suspicious package is identified,” continues Davis. “The agency has strong partnerships with law enforcement at airports around the country, whose officers immediately respond when TSA alerts them to a situation. For security reasons, we’re not at liberty to go into detail, but it is safe to say we want to be sure the travelling public is safe and we will go to extraordinary lengths to meet that expectation.”


The agency certainly recognises the need to act quickly in the face of new threats, as the liquid ban proves, but it will not be rushed into making technology decisions that will have a long-term effect on infrastructure and processes.

“Identifying and testing new explosives detection technology is critical to TSA’s effort to address known and emerging security threats,” remarks Davis. “We’d rather implement the right way the first time rather than fast. TSA seeks to test and deploy emerging technology as quickly as possible, but at the same time, we will not deploy new technology to an airport unless we are confident in its ability to perform to our security standards.”

“The new system should be able to detect potential metallic threats and explosive compounds.”

Hence the focus is now on thorough evaluation, with pilot programmes giving each system a chance to prove its worth in the real world under diverse conditions, which will allow the agency to assess its impact on many variables, including passenger throughput. The technology chosen must be rugged and thoroughly field-tested.

“Not every technology that performs effectively in the lab will perform similarly well in an airport environment,” explains Davis, “so we typically pilot new technology to a limited number of airports first to measure performance and impact before we consider deploying the equipment nationwide.”

TSA’s steady and meticulous approach means that airports may have to wait some time to see which technology is selected. However, the decision will have a significant impact on security levels in the US and internationally, and will no doubt pave the way for similar systems to be implemented in Europe and elsewhere. Most importantly, however, it will represent a huge step forward in neutralising major threats to commercial aircraft.