Airports in the U.S. big and small can eventually expect to have next-generation scanning systems deployed at security checkpoints to screen travelers’ carry-on bags, David Pekoske, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), said on Wednesday.

The computed tomography (CT)-based scanners have been used in U.S. airports since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to automatically screen checked bags for explosives but those machines are too large and heavy to deploy at security checkpoints. But manufacturers have reduced the size and weight of the CT systems to the point where TSA has been testing and evaluating them at select airport checkpoints for more than a year.

Transportation Security Administration Administrator David Pekoske.
Transportation Security Administration Administrator David Pekoske.

“I’ve asked our partners to look for ways to further reduce that size of the entire system so that it can fit in smaller airports,” Pekoske said at the Airports Council International North America annual aviation security conference in Arlington, Va.  “And it goes not just for CT but every single kind of security technology we deploy at the checkpoints.”

TSA currently uses Advanced Technology (AT) X-ray systems to screen carry-on bags at U.S. airports but Pekoske, and some members of Congress like House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), want a wholesale replacement of the AT systems with CT technology. OSI Systems [OSIS], whose Rapiscan Systems division supplies TSA with AT systems, is upgrading its portfolio of traditional parcel screening X-ray products to include better imaging quality to achieve fine-wire resolution and is hoping that its systems may still continue to have a role at security checkpoints at smaller airports that are space constrained.

Over the summer, there were media reports that TSA would reduce its screening requirements at more than 100 small airports across the country. Pekoske said this isn’t true.

“In fact, what we’re really doing, is looking at the growing gap in capability retention from a security perspective between smaller airports and larger airports, particularly as we deploy new technology in the larger airports, to ensure that we close that gap,” he said. “And so, if anything, there will be more security at low flying airports, not less, and they are critical to the overall system.”

TSA over the past year or more has been rolling out CT systems for field evaluations at 13 airports and so far, “we’ve had great success with that,” Pekoske said. TSA is still analyzing the results from the operational test and evaluations but still plans to award a contract in early 2019 for CT systems at the checkpoint, he said.

The solicitation for the pending CT contract was issued in September and said the agency will buy up to 300 new systems initially. TSA has about 2,400 screening lanes at airport checkpoints across the country. TSA may not need to buy as many CT systems to replace the number of AT systems it currently has because the newer technology, particularly combined with Automated Screening Lanes (ASLs) that are also being evaluated at a number of airports, offer significant opportunities to speed traveler throughput at checkpoints.

More than 150 ASLs have already been deployed at U.S. airport screening lanes. The systems are essentially the baggage handling system for carry-on bags, but unlike traditional screening lanes, the ASLs feature mechanized rollers, multiple divestment stations to make it more convenient for travelers, larger divestment bins to minimize the number of trays each person needs, automated bin return systems, and divert lanes if an X-ray system alarms on a bag so that it can be put aside for additional screening without having to be put through the scanner again.

The CT technology is “game changing,” Pekoske said, adding that it “improves by hundreds of percentage points our ability to detect things that we need to detect at the security checkpoints.”

The CT systems provide a three-dimensional image to operators versus a 2-D image that the AT systems display, and the new systems also allow operators to virtually turn an image to gain a better look at suspect areas of a bag.

In some of the airport evaluations with the CT technology, travelers are allowed to leave their laptops and personal electronics in their bags because the systems can automatically detect the presence of explosives. The same holds true with liquids in terms of explosives detection.

Pekoske said he thinks “within three years or so,” passengers will be able to leave their liquids and electronic devices inside their carry-on bags because the “machines will be able to automatically detect anything that we’re concerned about in the carry-on bag at the level of effectiveness that’s several hundred percent better than what we have today.”

TSA is currently evaluating CT systems that have been developed by Analogic, Integrated Defense & Security Solutions, L3 Technologies [LLL], and Smiths Detection. The agency is also looking at a hybrid AT/CT system developed by ScanTech.

Smiths Detection, which is part of Britain’s Smiths Group, also supplies TSA with AT systems.