By Del Quentin Wilber and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 29, 2008; D01
Soothing blue lights. Light background noise. Brightly dressed employees who have been trained to create a "calmer environment."
A hip spa, right?
No. This is how top government officials imagine the airport security checkpoint of the future. In fact, the atmosphere is so calming that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday forgot to remove his shoes -- a major no-no -- while demonstrating the prototype checkpoint's screening process for reporters at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. (His top aviation security official took his shoes off.)
The new checkpoint, which includes an automated bin-return system and machines that can see through passengers' clothing, is part of an effort by Homeland Security officials to make airport security more efficient and easier on customers. Authorities also announced yesterday an initiative that they said will reduce hassles faced by travelers with names similar to those on a terrorist watch list.
Government officials have to "be willing to always look back at what we do and not assume that what we are doing is always the best way to do it," Chertoff said yesterday in front of what he called the "next-generation" checkpoint.
"We have to be willing to revisit it, break the mold and think outside the box," he added.
Chertoff said a major component of the government's effort to improve passengers' experiences was to help thousands of people with names similar to those of suspected terrorists. Those passengers often face hurdles in obtaining boarding passes and often must go through extra screening at checkpoints. Members of Congress and celebrities have been snagged by such incidents.
Airlines, which check passenger names against the list, will now be allowed to accept dates of birth from passengers to more thoroughly check information against the watch lists, Chertoff said. Once passengers have proven that they are not suspected terrorists, they will be able to print boarding passes at kiosks or at home, rather than going through a check-in line, Chertoff said.
Airline representatives said they were generally enthusiastic about the proposal, but some privacy advocates were skeptical the measure will work.
"They've been saying for the last five years that they have a mechanism for addressing these problems, and the problems apparently persist," said David Sobel, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It almost sounds as if they are now trying to pass the problem off to the airlines."
Sobel said passengers need "real assurance" that the data will not be widely disseminated or used in any other way. "We need to see some strict enforceable rules for the limited use of that information," he said.
After years of lackluster progress in revamping checkpoints, officials at the Transportation Security Administration said they hope travelers begin to notice some changes as soon as they reach the airport. Travelers have expressed frustration at having to remove shoes, take laptop computers out of bags and put liquids into small containers jammed into plastic bags.
The TSA is buying more than 800 3-D X-ray machines, which on average cost about $125,000 and should make it easier for screeners to spot explosives by giving them multiple views of carry-on luggage. Current machines provide screeners with only one view of a bag, sometimes making it difficult to spot explosives.
To improve the chances of detecting explosives hidden on a passenger, the TSA is buying and deploying 30 millimeter-wave devices known as "whole body" imagers that can see through clothing by analyzing the reflection of radio frequency energy bounced off passengers. The devices have been stationed at four airports, including BWI. The 30 devices will cost about $7 million.
Security officials also announced plans yesterday to improve screeners' ability to spot explosives and suspicious behavior while using techniques that can reduce friction with passengers.
"We are aiming for an effective security checkpoint that also reduces the hassles on passengers," said Kip Hawley, the TSA's administrator.
The effort to create a calmer environment was on display at BWI yesterday at a prototype of a future checkpoint. The checkpoint had soothing blue lights, relaxing background noise and screeners in happy blue uniforms. The checkpoint had two millimeter-wave machines, as well as 3-D X-ray devices.
At other airports, the TSA is experimenting with family-friendly lines for those not experienced with security requirements or for those with lots of bags. Officials said they will evaluate the effectiveness of lighting and background music at BWI before rolling out those changes at other airports. Airports, not the TSA, would finance such features. A BWI spokesman said the airport had not decided whether to add the features to other checkpoints at the airport.
Chertoff brushed off a question about forgetting to remove his footwear, and Hawley said he only removed his because he has "become conditioned" to the rule.
Passengers at the airport expressed mixed opinions about whether the new technology and environment will alter an experience that they said was as frustrating as ever.
"The ambiance won't change anything," said Gene Lindenboom, 56, an aluminum salesman heading home to Florida. "You still have to remove your shoes. You still have to put liquids in that small bag."
When told that Chertoff did not remove his shoes, Lindenboom smiled: "Maybe now I won't have to remove mine anymore."