Program: Redeployment of Passenger Screening Equipment
Airports Affected: 49
Strategy: TSA is removing L-3 ProVision ATDs from regional non-hub airports & sending them to larger hubs to replace less advanced scanners criticized for producing overly revealing passenger images.
Sample of Airports Losing Equipment: Bismarck Municipal (236,000 passenger boardings); Grand Forks Int'l Airport (137,000); Helena Regional (96,500); Minot Int'l (224,000)
Pushback: Airports losing scanners anticipate increased checkpoint wait times due to reduction in overall resources & returned reliance on older metal detection equipment.
Officials at regional non-hub U.S. airports are coping with a federal decision to remove advanced body screening equipment from their facilities and send it to larger hub airports, where the machines are replacing less current scanners that drew a firestorm of public criticism for producing overly revealing images.
According to TSA, the redeployment affects 49 airports nationwide and will cost an estimated $2.5 million.
Airports on the losing end of the initiative largely expected the shift in federal resources to increase wait times, or even create bottlenecks, at their security checkpoints. Taking a technological step backward from body scanners to metal-detection magnetometers, they reasoned, was bound to increase wait times.
But so far, that doesn't appear to be the case.
Some credit the deployment of additional baggage X-ray machines and/or changes in TSA procedures/staffing for mitigating the loss of advanced imaging equipment.
Despite a lack of security gridlock at the smaller airports where scanners were removed, an undercurrent of pushback prevails. Some directors stress the inherent inefficiency of the redeployment, highlighting the millions of tax dollars that were spent to install then remove the same equipment a year or less later. Others are peeved that they spent airport funds to modify checkpoints to accommodate the larger, now-absent equipment.
Airport officials in North Dakota and Montana have been particularly, and publically, critical of the redeployment. They're frustrated because removal of the updated screening equipment coincides with a sharp increase in passenger traffic spurred by the region's oil and natural gas boom.
The North Dakota Aeronautics Commission notes that 2012 was a record-setting year for the state's eight commercial airports: Collectively, the group logged more than 1 million passenger boardings.
"The Bakken oil play has created a lot of economic activity for everyone in western North Dakota," explains Greg Haug, manager at Bismarck Municipal Airport (BIS). "It's not just workers coming and going ... economic prosperity in the region is creating more demand for travel, both business and leisure. We're bursting at the seams and scrambling to build extra parking and add more gates ... trying to keep ahead of the demand."
Years In the Making
The controversy began in fall 2010, when airports began using full-body scanners made by Rapiscan Systems. The scanners quickly generated public criticism for producing images some considered too anatomically revealing. Rapiscan was given until June to upgrade the machines with software that produces less-revealing images through advanced target recognition technology.
In January, TSA announced that Rapiscan could not meet the June deadline, and terminated the company's contract. TSA subsequently switched to equipment that produces a less-detailed, cartoon-like body image: ProVision ATD body scanners, made by the Security and Detection Systems division of L-3 Communications Holdings. To hasten the replacement process, TSA decided to remove L-3 units from smaller regional airports and send them to larger hub facilities. According to Haug, an airport must have more than 250,000 annual boardings for three consecutive years to keep an L-3 screener.
TSA explains the process this way: "TSA's deployment strategy is designed to ensure AIT (advanced imaging technology) is in place at checkpoints where they will be used a significant portion of operating hours, increasing overall utilization across the system. Reallocating millimeter-wave AITs, coupled with nationwide use of risk-based security (RBS) initiatives, such as modified screening procedures for children under 12 and adults over 75, allows TSA to reduce the total number of AIT units needed, and substitute these RBS methods to improve security effectiveness and efficiency.
"TSA will continue to evaluate airport needs and will reassess its AIT deployment strategy when additional units are procured," the prepared statement continues. "As TSA continues to implement risk-based security measures ... the need of AITs at each airport will be reevaluated to enhance security effectiveness and efficiency."
At Helena Regional Airport (HLN) in Montana, officials had worked closely with TSA to remodel its checkpoint to install an L-3 scanner and additional X-ray lane. The L-3 scanner, which is about the size of a minivan standing on end, required the airport to remove an overhang, at a total project cost of $125,000.
Making room for the body scanner accounted for about two-thirds of the project cost, and the X-ray lane would have been added anyway, says Airport Director Ron Mercer. FAA entitlement funds paid for 90% of the project, and the airport paid for the balance - $12,500.
Although HLN has not experienced significant backups at its single checkpoint since the L-3 scanner was removed, Mercer still takes exception to how the removal transpired. Although he had heard rumors that his airport's body scanner would be removed, the first official notification came via a call from a contractor who was on the way to remove it, he relates. Citing a state law, airport officials said the move was illegal and threatened to have anyone who tried to remove the machine arrested.
HLN officials also asked their state Congressional delegation to intervene, and Mercer requested that the airport be allowed to purchase the unit with Airport Improvement Funds. But that proposal went nowhere, he explains.
Eventually, HLN officials backed down. "But it was not a good way to act with your partners ... to have a contractor show up with a semi and say he's going to take out the machine," Mercer recounts. "We didn't want to be obstructionists ... and we understand they (TSA) are in charge, and that they face some challenges. But we wanted to make the point that we felt we weren't treated very well."
"At the same time," he adds, "we have a great relationship with our local TSA manager and employees."
At BIS in North Dakota, officials spent about $25,000 of airport funds to move a wall and widen the facility's only security checkpoint to accommodate a new baggage X-ray lane and L-3 unit that were installed in June 2012 ... and removed March 7.
Since then, Haug has not noticed significantly longer wait times.
"We don't track the time it takes passengers to get through the checkpoint," he says, "but we were under the impression that it (the L-3 scanner) was quicker. We were concerned that losing the L-3 would create a huge logjam. But with the procedures TSA has in place, the throughput seems to be OK, as long as they open the second X-ray lane in time."
Haug says that in the long run, reliance on the older magnetometer will prompt more pat-down inspections and alternative-screening procedures for passengers with artificial limbs and joints, which set off metal-detection alarms.
"The L-3 was nice because it could screen out certain anomalies like that ... it gave the screening folks pretty good information," he explains.
No Adverse Impact
Minot International Airport (MOT), also in North Dakota, only had to make minor electrical updates to accommodate its new body scanner.
"We already went through a terminal modification in 2010 that changed the entire checkpoint area, so there was adequate space for the piece of equipment," says MOT Director Andy Solsvig.
As for before-and-after comparisons of security throughput, Solsvig says that so far, it's basically been a wash.
"I think the L-3 found items on people more accurately, but it takes about five seconds for a passenger to go through it," he says, noting that the machines can process 200 to 300 people per hour. "But you can feed people through more quickly with the magnetometer, unless they forget to take off a belt or a watch, or require a pat-down. So depending on how you look at it, they're about the same."
"We thought it would be worse," he adds. "We didn't know what kind of impact to expect. But our TSA people have stepped up in terms of having enough employees to work through the pat-down process ... so they've been keeping the lines moving."
Taking a Stand
Grand Forks International Airport (GFK) received its L-3 scanner in January 2012, along with other new pieces of checkpoint equipment. Contractors had to remove windows on the north face of the new terminal building to deliver the new equipment, because the machines were too large to fit through the doors.
When contractors returned later to discuss removing the L-3 body scanner, they planned to remove the windows again. But that didn't sit well with the Grand Forks Regional Airport Authority. In February, the authority approved a measure that barred contractors from altering the building to remove the machine.
"It's (TSA's) equipment; they can have it. But we weren't going to allow them to take it out by removing those windows again," explains Patrick Dame, the authority's executive director. "They'd have to take out an entire bank of windows ... about 30 feet wide and 7 feet tall, frames and all. We didn't see any reason for more wear and tear on the building ... taking windows out and putting them back in, then possibly doing it again to get a replacement machine inside. That's ridiculous."
Eventually, the contractors devised an alternate strategy, and in early April disassembled the machine enough to fit it through an oversized door by the terminal's passenger boarding bridge.
With the L-3 scanner gone, Dame fully expects wait times to increase. It increased passenger throughput, and GFK's annual passenger boardings keep increasing, he explains.
"We will go backwards in the time it takes to screen passengers," he contends. "We expect the number of pat-downs to increase. When you only have one option (the magnetometer), it's going to back things up."
Importantly, none of the airport officials interviewed for this article believe that the equipment redeployment has compromised security.
"While the TSA doesn't divulge everything, they've given us enough information to make us feel comfortable that we have a very solid security system in place," Mercer says.
The same officials, however, would surely welcome replacement scanners with advanced-imaging technology. They note that TSA hasn't indicated if or when that might happen, but it seems possible for facilities with enough traffic.
BIS is right on the cusp of the magic 250,000-passenger mark. "We boarded 236,000 passengers last year, which is up 20 percent over the year before. And we're currently running 17 percent higher than 2012," Haug reports. "So if that trend continues, we'll be north of 250,000 passengers in 2013, and we'll have to see what happens in the years after that."