Safe on the Ground

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

The ultimate in sophisticated air travel not so long ago (as in maybe 12 years) was to go with zero luggage. No carryons, no checkthroughs. Perhaps a small but important piece of reading matter tucked into a jacket pocket. Those extremely cool flyers shipped everything ahead to their destinations. Will Fed-Ex, UPS, and other common carriers soon become our new valets? Has hazardous substance detection technology stood still?

A New Day, A New List
That wavelet must have been generated before the ubiquity of laptops, cell phones, iPods, and other gadgets that stave off boredom and the fidgets. Americans go mad when they're idle.

Last Friday I booked a flight to Memphis for a visit with my family. Next I wrote a shopping list of what I'll have to buy down there for my stay (I'll ship it all back home). Items keep appearing on and disappearing from that list, according to airport security's latest whim.

And whim it is. Tweezers were banned for a while lest someone suffer death by tweezing. Ink pens were OK, though, even with their pointy tips. (I dread the coming of in-flight cell phones for general use even more than I fear the smuggling of items deemed officially hazardous. All yack, all the time.) And why don't I just check my little bag, the only one I travel with? The reason is that every time I have done so it has gotten lost.

So Where Are the Sensors?
Surprise, surprise! They are right here and have been around for a while. The current buzz being peril in the form of liquids and gels, let's take a look at how to find those substances.

American Science and Engineering's SmartCheck is a low-intensity X-ray scanner capable of finding a container of organic compounds hidden within a passenger's clothing. The latest version displays only the outline of the person's body (no anatomical correctness here), and the radiation exposure is said to be the equivalent to that of flying at 20,000 feet for five minutes. $50,000.

Ahura has the First Defender, which can ID 2500 chemical compounds inside their containers in 15 seconds. It's been on the market for a year. The FBI and the NYPD are using it. $30.000.

General Dielectric's BCT (bottle contents detector) 2000 uses low-power microwaves to figure out the base substance of a liquid, generally water, and note any other chemicals in it. It's ready to roll. $20,000.

Do those prices sound high? They won't in a minute.

Where Is This Technology Hiding?
Charles Slepian, founder of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, opines that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is hesitant to put that kind of money into airport deployment. Gets better. SmartCheck is on duty at the White House and the U.S. Supreme Court. Now we know something we did not know before: Two buildings with perhaps the tightest security and least hurried lines in the country (justices and other badged officials, as do airline pilots, skip the general screening) are enjoying detection technology that we in the endless conga line of air travelers would welcome. The Transportation Security Administration said it would begin testing SmartCheck last year, but it didn't. An Ahura spokesman filed the same report.

Lesson learned: Some lives are more valuable than others. What numbers are we looking at here? Just a guess, but visitors to the White House, maybe in the high hundreds daily. To the Supreme Court, in the mid-hundreds. Air travelers, surely hundreds of thousands. Every day. So it's clearly not a simple matter of sheer numbers. Must be a matter of who constitutes those hordes.

The Sterile Concourse Revisited
Several readers seem to have missed my point about goods offered for sale along the sterile concourses inside the security gates. Here's a representative letter on the subject:

"I believe that the reason materials bought after clearing gate are banned is that security has no way of knowing whether the bottle had been tampered with. It would be relatively simple to fill the bottle with something unpleasant then slip it into the concourse store with other harmless bottles. If located within a crate how would anyone know? A helper in the store could "sell" the bottle to the terrorist. I have read that a Japanese firm has already fielded a device capable of detecting liquid explosives. It is currently operating, successfully, they say, in an airport."

Well, yes. But given that the current commotion is focused on liquids and gels as bomb components for in-flight assembly, why not require tamper-proof safety seals on all containers of water, lip balm, underarm protection, and the like sold inside the secure areas? As it is, most of these items already come from the grocery or drugstore so snugly encased as to require a handful of special tools to get at them.

And so we air travelers will continue to shuffle along, shoeless and thirsty, in deference to the Threat of the Month. Knowing that at least two of our federal buildings are safe. And trying not to think too much about shoulder-launched rockets.

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