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What is "electronic explosive detection technology"?

Airport Security Screening Process

Nico Melendez (TSA Regional Spokesperson) gives expert video advice on: What is "electronic explosive detection technology"?; What is "positive passenger bag matching"?; In what ways has the screening of checked baggage changed since 9/11? and more...

What is "electronic explosive detection technology"?

In the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001--the legislation that created our agency--congress called for the TSA to be able to screen all checked bags, using explosive detection technology. There are two types of explosive detection technology; it's basically technology that screens for explosives: Explosive Trace Detection Systems, which screen for traces of explosives; and Explosive Detection Systems, which have often been referred to as the "minivan multimillion dollar machines" that are sitting in the lobbies of our airports. They work similar to a CAT-scan machine, where you put a bag into it and it screens for explosives.

What is "positive passenger bag matching"?

Positive passenger bag matching was an interim solution to screening for explosives. Congress required the TSA to implement Positive passenger bag matching in February of 2002 until December 31st of 2002 when we began screening bags using technology. Essentially what it called for was if a passenger is on the plane, so too was that passenger's bag. If the bag was on the plane but the the passenger wasn't, the bag would be pulled off the plane. So the positive passenger bag matching was really obvious stuff. On December 31st of 2002, we began screening all bags using technology. The requirement of Positive passenger bag matching went away.

In what ways has the screening of checked baggage changed since 9/11?

On September 11th, 2001, less than 5% of all checked bags were screened using explosive detection technology. Today, 100% of bags are screened for explosives. So it's changed significantly in the fact that now we use electronic explosive detection systems to screen all bags. And at the same time, we've trained employees of the TSA to do the screening. So the screening on September 11th compared to the screening today is significantly different.

In what ways has the screening of carry-on baggage changed since 9/11?

The way we screen carry-on baggage today is similar to what was done on September 11th. However, the list of items that passengers are no longer allowed to bring onto an airplane have changed significantly. The training that we have given to our new employees that were brought on when the TSA was created is significantly different. They are able to see and identify many different images in the carry-on bags than they were able to do on September 11th.

How has the screening for passengers changed since 9/11?

Since September 11th, we've seen a lot of changes to what we do with screening of passengers at the airport. A couple of summers ago we saw some Russian airliners explode in Russia because of body-borne explosives. It immediately identified the need to increase explosive detection at the security checkpoint. A couple of years ago, the 9/11 Commission recommended that we increase explosive screening at the security checkpoint. We've implemented what we call a pat-down screening, where we check passengers using physical touching on the person. We are screening for anomalies on a person, something that might be on their torso or on their legs, that they've hidden on themselves to introduce into the secure area of the airport. We've also introduced new technologies, such as the backscanner machine, which essentially takes an x-ray image of a person so that we can see if there's anything hidden on the body. We also have what are called the puffer machines, where we screen for explosive traces on passengers. Passengers are screened for explosives using both hands and technology.

What is the process for screening cargo?

We screen cargo based on risk. When you put a package into the cargo system, you have no guarantee that that piece of cargo is going to end up on an aeroplane. There's a possibility that it is going to go on a truck, or on a train. So, there is not a guarantee that any particular package is going to go in the air. Even if it is Second-Day Air, it's not going to go in the air. So, we screen the high-risk cargo, which is the counter-to-counter cargo. When a passenger, or a person, brings a package to the air cargo counter and says, "This package needs to be on Flight XYZ at 3:4 from here to there," that package is going to be screened 100 percent of the time. Some of the pieces of cargo are bigger than a car, and the technology doesn't exist to screen every piece of cargo using technology; it just isn't there. Our agency have not been appropriated the resources to be able to screen every piece of cargo, so we screen high-risk cargo.

Does the TSA profile passengers?

The TSA does not see profiling as an effective means of providing security. The threat is very real and the threat could be anyone among us. In the past we have seen circumstances in which people ask, "Well why do you have to screen the elderly?" Well, in past years, we saw a 67 year old man who had hollowed out his prosthetic leg and put a 10 inch military knife inside of his leg. In Orlando we found a teddy bear that had a gun stuffed up inside it. The bear belonged to a three or four or five year old (although clearly the gun was for the use of someone else). It really could be anyone among us and no passengers should be exempt from screening, because you don't know who the threat is. So no, we don't profile.

What is "behavior pattern recognition"?

Behavior pattern recognition is a tool that the Israelis have used to look at how an individual behaves in an airport environment, to determine if there is a threat. We at TSA don't use behavior pattern recognition, but we have a tool similar to it called suspicious passenger observation techniques. We have trained employees to look for passengers who are acting out of the ordinary. Are they wearing a warm coat on a hot day? Are they sweating or nervous when they come to the airport security checkpoint? We look for things that we see that could trigger some kind of a response, to thwart any kind of a threat.

How are screeners different since 9/11?

The screeners and security officers that the TSA has in place are highly trained individuals looking for specific items, looking for the threat. They go through forty hours of classroom training. They go through sixty hours of on-the-job training. Every week they go through three hours of additional training. We have career progression. We have benefits. Screeners get paid extremely well, and the attrition is in the neighbourhood of 20%. Prior to the TSA arrival, in terms of the security before September 11th, the companies that were providing security gave their people as little as eight hours of training, and the attrition in some cases was as much as 400%. Our people now are required to be at least a high school graduate, be proficient in the English language, and be a US citizen. So the screeners that we have in place now are significantly different and better prepared than they were prior to September 11th.