Screening for explosives at several US airports is about to change. Airport screener’s will navigate carts with specialized bomb-detection machines around airport gates and checkpoint lines to randomly check passengers hands and carry-on bags for explosive residue using chemical swabs.
The program, already tested at five airports after the attempted Christmas Day bomb plot on a U.S.-bound airliner, begins nationwide in a few weeks, TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said.
Metal detectors now used at checkpoints can’t spot materials such as the powdered explosives that bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly hid in his underwear to get through a checkpoint in Amsterdam’s airport.
“Had Abdulmutallab been subjected to a (chemical) inspection, there’s a high probability it would have picked up the explosives,” RAND Corp. security analyst Brian Jenkins said. “The machines are extraordinarily sensitive.”
Shortly after the Dec. 25 incident, the TSA ran a 17-day test at the five airports to see whether bomb-sensing equipment could be rolled on carts to check random passengers.
The microwave-oven-size detectors are usually stationary and are a common sight at airport checkpoints, where screeners swipe a small swab along a bag or a passenger’s hand. The swab is then run through a reader that can detect minute amounts of explosives.
The machines are so sensitive that alarms can sound for passengers who have recently taken heart pills containing nitroglycerin, or if they have recently fired guns, Jenkins said. The machines also are used on checked luggage.