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SAFETY & SECURITY Last modified on February 25, 2010

The big screen

Do full-body scanners provide the missing link for airport security? Joe Bates investigates.

Investment in airport security is expected to soar this year as gateways across the world ramp up their explosive detection efforts in the wake of the alleged Christmas Day bomb plot.

Aviation security is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, and investment in new screening technologies is expected to jump significantly this year as airports introduce full-body scanners and other new equipment following the alleged attempt by Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to detonate a bomb onboard Northwest Airlines flight 253 to Detroit.

The huge spend will mean that over $40 billion has been invested on improving aviation’s security infrastructure since 9/11, according to reports carried out by Washington-based industry tracker, Homeland Security Research Corporation. The figures cover sales, maintenance, upgrade and refurbishment.

In the US alone, recent events have resulted in an additional $1 billion being earmarked for aviation security, with a sizeable chunk of the total being set aside for the nationwide roll out of full-body scanners at airports.

Indeed, the momentum to deploy the technology is such that it is likely that full-body scanners that are able to look under passengers’ clothing for hidden weapons, could be found in nearly 50% the nation’s airport check-in points by late 2011.

According to press reports the goal is to acquire 450 scanners in 2010 and another 500 next year in the US’s biggest deployment of airport security equipment since the 9/11 attacks.

The US currently has 40 millimetre wave (MMW) body scanners in use at 19 airports, although the majority are used for secondary or random screening as an alternative to a pat down.

In addition to the scanners, the TSA has announced that it is expanding the random use of Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) technology at airports nationwide as an extra layer of security.

The Dutch government has also been quick to respond to the alleged ‘underpants bomber’, announcing plans to install up to 60 full-body scanners at the gateway, 20 of which are expected to be in place by April.

Schiphol, which already boasts 15 older MMW scanners, will require all US bound passengers to go through body scanners.

Each comes with a price tag of around €100,000, meaning that the airport will face a potentially massive bill for the machines unless the Dutch government agrees to meet some of the costs.

Schiphol Group president and CEO, Jos Nijhuis, has already gone on record as stating that he hoped the Dutch government would bear the cost of the new equipment “given that it was a matter of the security of the entire community”.

Elsewhere in Europe, full-body scanners have been introduced at Heathrow and Manchester airports in the UK and both the Italian and French governments have announced plans to do likewise at a handful of gateways. Montréal-Trudeau installed the first of its two full-body scanners in early February and, as at Amsterdam Schiphol, the machines will primarily be used to screen passengers on US bound flights.

A total of 44 full-body scanners will be installed across Canada’s airports by the spring in an initiative transport minister, John Baird, claims will ensure that the nation’s transport system “stays ahead of the terrorist elements”. Other gateways getting them include Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa.

Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport is also set to get full-body scanners from May as part of a six-month trial by the Indian government and the Nigerian government has ordered machines for its international airports.

The surge in orders has led one manufacturer, L-3 Security & Detection Systems, to reveal that it has had to up production to 50 machines a month in order keep up with demand.

Heathrow unveiled its first full-body scanner in Terminal 4 on February 1 and will install machines in its other terminals over the coming months having previously trialled the technology.

BAA security director, Ian Hutcheson, says the move is “one significant step towards a more robust defence against the changing and unpredictable threat posed by terrorists.”

Under the UK’s tough new security measures, any passenger refusing to be screened will be refused permission to fly.

In a bid to avoid prejudice in the screening process, the UK government has drafted an interim code of practice for security staff stipulating that passengers should not be selected for scanning on the basis of gender, age, race or ethnic origin.

Both Heathrow and Manchester airports have initially opted for Secure 1000 Single Pose body-scanners manufactured by Californiabased Rapiscan Systems.

Ahead of the game, Moscow Domodedovo introduced full-body scanners three years ago and continues to use L-3 SafeView’s SafeScout 100 radiowave scanners to process up to 400 passengers per hour at its domestic and international security check points.

Although individual governments are clearly the driving force behind the clamour to install full-body scanners at airports, Europe's airports will almost certainly be expected to pay for the new technology, unlike in the US where the federal government provides the funding.

And in today’s tough operating climate, spending between €100,000 and €150,000 per scanner is a cost airports could have done without.

Indeed, ACI Europe calculates that security expenses at the continent’s gateways have risen from between 5% and 8% of an airport’s operating costs pre-9/11 to about 35% today.

The big question, of course, is would full-body scanners have detected the explosives allegedly hidden in the underpants of Abdulmutallab?

Manufacturers L3 Security & Detection Systems, Smiths Detection and Rapiscan Systems insist that body scanners provide aviation with the best technological solution to the threat of concealed weapons and explosives on passengers.

However, the many variables involved in airport security ranging from operator training and performance to the physical layout of the checkpoint mean that none could categorically state that the machines are infallible.

Rapiscan’s vice president global marketing, Andrew Goldsmith, explains: “It is difficult to answer that question because detection depends on a number of non-technical factors. What I can say with 100% certainty is that when used by trained operators, our full-body scanners significantly increase the likelihood of detecting small, well concealed non-metallic threats compared to metal detectors, physical pat-down searches or other people screening technologies.”

This assessment is supported by Smith Detection’s director for strategy and communication, Bernhard Semling, who notes: “Body scanners are capable of detecting the explosive substances allegedly used on flight 253, but while it is possible to detect such objects, providing an absolute guarantee that they would have done is not possible because of the other variables involved in the screening process.”

L3 Security & Detection System’s senior vice president, Bill Frain, simply says: “Our systems are specifically designed to find this type of threat – including a wide range of plastic, liquid and other metallic and non-metallic threats hidden on the body.”

So what kind of technology are we talking about and how safe is it? There are currently two main technologies available that can scan the human body for potential threats – backscatter and millimetre wave (MMW).

MMW beams millimetre wave energy over a person to create a 3D image of the human body while backscatter technology bounces very low energy X-rays off of a person to generate an image.

Both processes are estimated to take an average of 10 seconds including the time it takes security staff to assess the image.

“The timing varies depending on the system and the technology employed,” says Semling. “Image capture can be instantaneous for real-time systems or at most take a few seconds. Including time for assessment of the image, the process is comparable in time to the existing screening procedures based on metal detection and hand search, but has the potential to be more time-efficient and for sure is more passenger-friendly.”

One of the advantages of backscatter technology is that it has been well studied, understood and regulated for decades and, as a result, received a clean bill of health from a number of medical bodies.

They include the American College of Radiology, which recently noted “an airline passenger flying cross-country is exposed to more radiation from the flight than from screening by one of these devices.”

While the US’s National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP) reports that a passenger would need to experience 100 backscatter scans per year to reach what they classify as a ‘negligible individual dose’.

MMW security scans pose no health risks whatsoever as unlike certain types of medical scanner, they do not use X-rays.

L3 Security & Detection System’s Frain, enthuses: “Millimetre waves are non-ionizing and do not penetrate the skin like X-rays. The energy levels generated by our machines are a fraction of what is generated by commonly used household devices.”

Without doubt the most controversial aspect of full-body scanners is their intrusive nature, and public fears about their introduction have not been helped by newspaper headlines warning that passengers face virtual strip searches at airports.

Indeed, feelings about the issue are running so high that one US lawmaker recently declared “we don't need to look at naked eight year-olds and grandmothers to secure airplanes."

Amsterdam Schiphol, for one, is adamant that its MMW ‘Security Scan’ devices pose no privacy threat as the image shown is a stylised human figure and not their actual body.

Passengers simply walk into the device and raise their hands above their head for three seconds, and walk out again. The machine automatically highlights any ‘foreign objects’ on the stylised human image and, if it cannot be identified, the passenger will be subjected to a hand search.

The TSA claims that blurring faces and other body parts together with deleting images immediately after they have been viewed safeguards passenger modesty.

Undergoing a full-body scan in the US is 100% optional, although those refusing to be screened will be subjected to a ‘full-body pat down’.

Also in both the US and the UK the screener that observes the images is located in a ‘remote location’ away from the checkpoint so avoiding any potential embarrassment for the passenger.

Not surprisingly, the equipment manufacturers believe that there is little foundation to the privacy concerns surrounding full-body scanners.

L3’s Frain says: “Our machines offer multiple levels of privacy protection that can be customised to reinforce privacy processes and procedures. They include remote monitoring, silhouetted and blurred images and deletion after use. In terms of the silhouettes, the 3D black and white image the remote analyst sees makes it virtually impossible to identify anyone.”

Assures Semling: “Smiths Detection’s full-body scanning equipment is designed to fully address basic rights issues such as privacy, data security and health protection.”

Rapiscan’s Goldsmith acknowledges: “Do I believe that they contravene a person’s basic human rights? Absolutely not! We believe that when used as part of a well designed and well-regulated aviation security programme, full-body scanners can help protect the rights of passengers to travel safely. In fact, many passengers find them less intrusive than physical pat downs.”

What is clear, however, is that full-body scanners should be just one of the security technologies and procedures adopted by an airport to ensure safety on the ground and in the sky.

“There is a whole mix of technology and practices that can be done at airports independently of scanners and this is what we are focused on as an international consensus," says US Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, who insists that the US is not looking for all countries to adopt identical security systems.

"What we want to avoid is a 'cookie cutter' (identical) approach, because then the terrorists know about the approach and they plan around it," adds the Homeland Security secretary.

Smith Detection’s Semling certainly has no qualms about admitting that full-body scanners are far from the only answer when it comes to detecting explosives/weapons hidden under a passengers’ clothing.

“There is no single solution to a threat situation as complex as that presented at an aviation checkpoint. Body scanners are a major improvement over the current process that relies on metal detection and random physical search on a subset of passengers,” he says.

“Other highly reliable technologies such as trace detection provide complimentary and orthogonal capability. Combinations of these technologies in a layered approach provide a more comprehensive detection capability and help close as many security gaps as possible.”

In the circumstances then, it certainly makes sense for airports to continue to consider all security options and avoid concentrating too much on one particular technology or device as the terrorist threat is constantly evolving.



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