WASHINGTON — The Transportation Security Administration is moving closer to easing one of the biggest post-9/11 security hassles: making airline travelers take laptops out of cases at airport checkpoints.
A policy likely to take effect in a few months would allow passengers to put certain types of cases through airport X-ray machines with laptops inside, TSA chief Kip Hawley told USA TODAY.
Manufacturers such as Targus and Skooba Design are designing new "checkpoint-friendly" cases, which passengers would have to buy if they want to take advantage of the new TSA policy. Travelers could still use old cases but would have to continue removing laptops at checkpoints.
The TSA is testing prototypes of new laptop cases that would let airport screeners see a laptop clearly and not block or clutter an X-ray image with thick padding, straps or electronics.
"This is very doable, and we'll be in a position in a couple of months to say people who show up with these types of laptop cases will be able to put them though X-ray machines," Hawley said. Laptops now must be removed so screeners can see if they are concealing bombs or weapons.
"This could be huge," said Michael Hess, CEO of Skooba, of Rochester, N.Y. "Anything that speeds up the process and reduces the burden on travelers and screeners will improve the deteriorating travel situation."
The TSA received 52 written proposals after announcing in March that it was looking for "checkpoint-friendly" cases. Many ideas feature "clamshell designs" with two sides that fold together like a book. One side holds papers, cables and other accessories; the other side holds only the laptop.
At a checkpoint, the case would unfold and be placed flat on the X-ray belt so screeners would see the laptop in its otherwise-empty sleeve as clearly as if it were in a security bin with nothing else.
California-based Targus plans to give the TSA four prototypes and could have cases on shelves in three or four months. "Heavy travelers will be the first adopters of this," Targus marketing chief Al Giazzon said.
The TSA will not approve or certify laptop cases, Hawley said. The agency has published guidelines for cases and will add more guidelines in early June after prototype tests.
The main standard is that the case must provide an image that is "as clear as what you get when a laptop is in a bin," Hawley said. Screeners who cannot get a clean view of an encased laptop will search the case.
The TSA acknowledges that some passengers will put cases through X-ray machines that do not provide clear images. The agency plans a publicity campaign to inform fliers about the features required to make a case checkpoint-friendly.
Hess fears that if many travelers put inappropriate cases through X-ray machines and end up being searched, checkpoint lines will be slower than today. "It will absolutely have the opposite effect of what it was intended to do," Hess said.