TSA Hopes a Calmer Checkpoint Is a More Secure Checkpoint
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff
Smooth instrumental music filtered through a security checkpoint in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Monday, as large, windowpane-sized light panels bathed the scene in cool blue light. It was hardly a typical security scene — for one, the lanes were empty. For another, the checkpoint was located in a spare hangar, flanked by empty office space.
The Transportation Security Administration said the checkpoint, which is due to be shipped to Baltimore-Washington International Airport for use in May, is part of a new plan involving improved behavioral identification of terrorists through contrast. The central idea is that the calmer security lines are, the more people with ill intent will stand out.
“If the whole checkpoint is very hectic, chaotic, it’s better camouflage for someone with hostile intent,” TSA spokesman Christopher White said during a tour of the checkpoint.
Not everything from the future BWI screening center will make it to other airports, but some features from it are already in pilot programs elsewhere and others will filter across the country, most significantly, the concept of keeping things serene in the checkpoint lanes.
“The intent is not that this goes to every airport,” White said. “The intent is that elements go to every airport.”
White said TSA is adding more staff to checkpoints and designing around eight hours of training to help them interact better with passengers. In the future, he said, there will be “no barking, no yelling.” Agents will receive “wireless whisper microphones and radios, allowing them to communicate with one another discretely, he said. And, when they complete their training, they will receive new uniforms TSA has rolled out for the initiative.
Walking through the prototype BWI checkpoint, White said the idea of calming people in incorporated throughout, along with new features created in response to passenger feedback. It featured wider lanes that White said would allow transportation security officers to walk among passengers. Every few feet were placards with pictures of TSOs, along with biographical information. Pat, the TSO featured on one sample, recently found three firearms at a checkpoint and is a volunteer firefighter in his spare time.
White also pointed out the advisories posted along the way with messages like “Pockets Empty?” He said the normal TSA signs were too complicated. The simplified signs “clearly say do not do this,” he said. Everything was in some shade of blue, except for an orange STOP line on the floor at the end of the lane. White said the contrast was intentional, and would alert passengers to a “call for action.”
The modifications based on passenger feedback were most apparent near the carry-on X-ray machine. White pointed to benches, for people to take off their shoes (there were also others beyond the checkpoint to put them back on), and a counter top where people could empty their pockets, with a built-in zip-top bag dispenser and trash can for contraband.
“If you’re the expert traveler, you’re going to go right by this,” White said. “If you’re the family of five going to Orlando, you’ll spend some time here.”
The X-ray machine itself was different from the typical model in several respects. It offered operators four color views of each piece of luggage, in contrast to the usual gray-scale single view. And it was attached to an automatic conveyor belt with an automatic bin return.
“Our officers are not going to have to make tens of thousands of trips to bring them back per day,” White said.
A bin placed on the rollers goes through the X-ray machines. Those that need to be checked are zipped over to TSA staff by a separate belt, to an area where the passenger can watch the inspection. The machine carries those that are cleared to passengers. Three cameras watch to ensure that there is nothing left inside. When the bin is empty, it drops to another conveyor belt and heads back.
While the bag is being inspected, passengers walk through a traditional metal detector and proceed to a millimeter-wave scanning booth. Going through it requires getting inside and placing your feet in designated areas, while a scanning bar passes quickly in front of you. The image the machine takes goes to a TSA worker in an enclosed room, away from the scanner. That officer then contacts the machine’s attendant, who is told only if the passenger can go. White said one major difference between millimeter-wave and metal detectors is that it requires the pockets to be completely empty — the scanner will pick up on anything, even plastic.
Civil libertarians have raised some concerns about the millimeter-wave technology because of its invasive nature. In fact, my ears burned a bit as I saw that my navel, as well as blurry depictions of other anatomical features, were visible on an image of me after I went through the scanner. But White said no one at the checkpoint, not even the machine’s attendant, sees the image. And once an image is viewed, it is permanently deleted, he said.
“Once that image is cleared, it’s gone forever,” he said. “We have no way to recall it.”
While some features of the checkpoint, such as the millimeter-wave scanner, are directly linked to security, others, such as the automatic bin return and the benches, seem more aimed at convenience. But White said they are all linked to safety, from the TSO training to the light panels.
“By calming things down, we’re hoping to create a more secure environment,” he said.
Rob Margetta can be reached at [email protected]