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Friday, July 19, 2024

People Screening at Airports Is About to Take a Major Leap Forward

This is the third in a three-part series on how COVID-19 could revolutionize airport checkpoints. Read Part One and Part Two.

TSA’s goal to leverage remote screening and a “contactless” passenger experience does not stop at identity verification or accessible property screening. These fundamentals can – and we think will — be applied to passenger screening as well because they too will improve efficiency and enhance the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) and passenger safety.

On-person screening – TSA’s official term for passenger screening at the security checkpoint – is today conducted using a variety of technologies: millimeter wave Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) to screen for metallic and nonmetallic threats, walk-through metal detectors (WTMDs) to screen for metallic threats, and explosive trace detection systems (ETDs) that screen for trace amounts of explosive residue. Additionally (and unfortunately), there are times when pat-downs are required.


·       Two Years: Introduction to stand-off screening technologies and remote screening

·       Five Years: Stand-off screening and screening at pace become the norm

·       Ten Years: Self-service for expedited passengers

These technologies and procedures require close physical interaction between the TSO and the person being screened. They can be time consuming, and in the case of a pat-down, downright aggravating.

An Improved AIT Is Coming

Since the foiled “underwear” bombing attempt in December 2009, TSA’s mainstay for passenger screening has been the AIT. Over the years, TSA has steadily enhanced its AIT’s capabilities to address changing aviation threats. However, TSA has long recognized that the current AIT may not be the only tool needed in the passenger screening toolbox.

Currently, TSA is demonstrating and testing Enhanced Advanced Imaging Technology (eAIT). The eAIT, like the AIT, is designed to detect the presence of concealed metallic and non-metallic threats that may be carried in or underneath the clothing of persons entering the checkpoint. However, passengers screened by the eAIT will no longer have to raise their hands over their heads, providing all passengers, but especially those with mobility challenges, a much better experience. The eAIT does away with the AIT’s enclosed circular design, instead using flat panels for a more open environment.

But the eAIT is just the beginning.

2 Years: Stand-off and Remote Screening Technologies Are Introduced into the Aviation Checkpoint   

Stand-off people screening – the ability to screen people at a distance and thereby eliminate close physical interaction and reduce pat-downs and – is on the verge of becoming a reality at aviation checkpoints.

The technology allows for detection of metallic and non-metallic items concealed under a person’s clothing at distances up to 15 feet. Not only does this reduce the need for physical pat-downs, it also reduces the health and safety risks associated with COVID-19.  It works by detecting objects that are blocking a person’s natural heat energy, and it can show the size, shape and location of a concealed object, without revealing the person’s gender or anatomy. It is already widely used in warehouses and distribution centers for loss prevention applications, and some U.S. airports are now using the technology in their employee screening lanes. In an aviation checkpoint environment, the technology could be used to resolve screening alarms less intrusively. It could also enable the creation of a new “PreCheck PLUS” expedited passenger screening lane in which passengers do not have to stop during the screening process. The “PreCheck PLUS” experience could be offered to any PreCheck passenger by providing additional information for a supplementary risk assessment.

Additionally, in two years, it is possible that TSA could introduce remote image analysis for on-person screening using their eAIT systems or stand-off technologies. By integrating electronic gate (E-gate) technologies and diversion queues with the eAIT, TSA could eliminate the physical interaction between the TSO conducting on-person screening and the passenger. It is envisioned that the passenger would walk into the eAIT, stop for a second to get screened, walk out of the eAIT into one of several diversion queues controlled by a set of E-gates as they await their screening result, and finally leave the diversion queue after receiving a ‘cleared’ status. For those passengers who aren’t initially ‘cleared,’ they would go through a secondary screening process.

5 Years: Stand-off Screening and Screening at Pace Become the Norm

In five years, we predict the focus of TSA will shift from testing and piloting these technologies (such as stand-off and remote people screening) and move to integrating these technologies to allow for a more secure, seamless and passenger-friendly screening process.

In other words, “screening at pace” will become the norm at the busiest 20-30 airports. This does not mean the current checkpoint will disappear. But there will be screening lanes that allow a passenger to verify their identity and travel credentials via biometric technology. They will have their carry-on items screened remotely and with minimal divestment of liquids and electronics. And thanks to advanced people screening technologies, they will be screened “at pace” or while walking, rather than waiting in line. The technology to make this happen exists – the gating factor will be the budget and operational impacts that such a change will have on TSA (how it trains TSOs, for example) and on airports that will have to reconfigure their checkpoints.

10 Years: Self-Service for Expedited Travelers

Similar to the 10-year outlook provided for accessible property screening (in part two of this three-part series), TSA and the DHS Science and Technology (DHS S&T) Directorate are conducting research and talking to industry about the feasibility of bringing self-service concepts to the passenger screening process. The goal is to enable a self-sufficient checkpoint security screening process that improves the expedited passenger experience. It is envisioned that passengers permitted in the expedited screening process would go through a request, action, and feedback process to divest their on-person items. During this process, if a failed indication were provided, the passenger would be shown digitally what is causing the alarm and be allowed to self-resolve the alarm by removing the item. It is envisioned that most passengers would complete this process entirely on their own.

Although this capability is in the very early stages of the systems engineering process, it is foreseeable, given successful laboratory tests, that prototype technologies could be piloted at airports in the next few years. However, “training” busy airport passengers to efficiently self-screen will likely take time – just consider how long it has taken self-service checkout at grocery stores to become widely accepted. As a result of these human factors, we don’t expect to see widespread self-service screening in this decade.


The aviation checkpoint has come a long way since the urgent days after 9/11. TSA did not exist 20 years ago, and in its first years it had the unenviable challenge of securing aviation at the same time it was building an effective organization that interacts with millions of Americans every day – far more than any other federal government agency.

Twenty years ago, no one thought about how a pandemic could change the aviation landscape. But here we are. The pandemic has been a catalyst for some revolutionary changes across the aviation security enterprise. Minimizing interactions between passengers and TSA staff are here to stay. At the same time, the aviation community needs to maintain a high level of operational readiness while improving the passenger experience.

So as the threat to aviation evolves, so do the technologies and processes to secure the aviation enterprise. We all know that there is no one silver bullet but rather, it is the ‘security in depth’ strategy that will keep one step ahead of the bad actors.  As we consider how the checkpoint will change over the next 10 years, what is exciting is that TSA and the aviation community are mature enough to truly be forward-leaning – to anticipate rather than react – so that we can raise the security baseline and make aviation security truly world-class.

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