Experts at Aspen forum say air travelers face safer but slower times
ASPEN – Commercial air travelers in the United States are safer than ever as new technology is applied but security lines at airports also won’t shrink anytime soon, experts at the Aspen Security Forum said Tuesday.
Safety is taking a “quantum leap forward” because of advanced imaging technology, also known as body scanners, that has been installed recently at major airports, said Chris Bidwell, vice president of security and facilitation at Airport Council International, and a member of a three-person panel discussing aviation security at the forum.
The body scanners are replacing metal detectors that use technology in place since 1974. The older machines can’t detect the explosive materials that terrorists have attempted to sneak onto airplanes in places like their underwear. The body scanners show anomalies to the skin of individuals so they detect a broader range of weapons.
The new technology has been installed by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, at 34 airports in the United States, including Denver International Airport. Another 15 airports will soon receive the high-tech machines, according to the TSA website. The goal is to eventually install them at all commercial airports.
The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport hasn’t received a body scanner yet. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a question of when,” said Jim Elwood, aviation director at the airport, who was contacted after the forum.
The experts on the aviation security panel said the multimillion-dollar investment by the federal government is well worth it.
“Aviation remains a very lucrative target in the minds of terrorists,” said Erroll Southers, managing director of counterterrorism and infrastructure protection at TAL Global. He said it is a major concern that terrorists continue to experiment and find ways to get substances aboard for individual explosive devices, such as the would-be bomber who boarded a Northwest flight bound for Detroit last Christmas. The explosive material concealed in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear failed to detonate.
Terrorists take a long-term approach to their mission and believe they will eventually “wear down” the U.S. resolve to stay ahead of them, Southers said. The terrorists come from cultures that assess success over thousands of years, not the nine years that have passed since 9/11, he said.
The body scanners help assure commercial airlines passengers that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to assure their safety, said Jim May, president and CEO of Air Transport Association of America Inc., an association for air carriers.
“My own personal view is they ought to be mandatory,” May said. “Five years ago we would have thought this is the Holy Grail.”
Not all passengers do. Some don’t want to go through body scanners, citing privacy concerns. They must go through the metal detectors and a “pat-down” by a TSA official. The alternative was mandated by Congress. Terrorists will naturally try to pass materials through the alternative process, said Tom Frank, a journalist with USA Today and moderator for the panel discussion.
“The pat-downs won’t pat down everywhere,” Frank said.
The body scanners come at a price beyond privacy. They require additional space, which many airports don’t possess, and they lengthen time in security lines.
Elwood said his staff has done some proactive planning on the assumption the TSA will eventually install three of the scanning systems at the Aspen airport. It will be a tight fit, especially because the metal detection system needs to remain as an alternative.
“This building was not designed for current commercial airline travel,” Elwood said. Passengers are spending more time in the secured area, creating capacity issues.
The new technology requires travelers to take everything out of their pockets – from coins and keys to lip balm and boarding passes. Failure to remove items requires a “rerun” through the device, Elwood said.
The scan by the advanced imagining technology takes about five seconds and the reading at a remote site requires another 15 to 22 seconds, Elwood said. That is more time than the current process. “The lines are going to be potentially slow,” Elwood said.
Travel patterns also slow security lines. The number of commercial airline passengers is projected to reach 1 billion by 2025, Bidwell said. And the decision by most airlines to charge for checked bags is prompting more people to stuff their carry-on bags, which requires more time to screen.
“Right now we’ve got a perfect storm developing, if you will,” Bidwell said.
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With COVID-19 health and safety practices in place, who is up for a road trip to see the Denver Art Museum’s hotly anticipated exhibition on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera?