The TSA has been promoting further deployment of millimeter-wave (MMW) scanners at even the smallest airports, claiming that these will speed the painfully slow screening lines at airports. Unfortunately, these claims resemble deceptive public service announcements and fail to acknowledge some facts.
All of the scanners deployed new in the past year have been of the MMW variety, while the TSA continues to say that the backscatter (x-ray scanners) still in service are safe. This raises the obvious question: if the x-ray scanners are safe, why has the TSA stopped installing them?
As we’ve reported before, while the MMW scanners may improve things for those with metal joints who alarm metal detectors, they simultaneously impose an unfair burden on those with mastectomy scars, ostomy appliances, insulin pumps, and other medical devices, and on women wearing sanitary products.
These people will receive full body “pat-downs” at minimum and could be subjected to a strip-search like the three women at JFK airport in November. During that time they will be separated from their belongings and at risk of theft of their property, which unfortunately happens all too often.
TSA acknowledges that it takes 10-12 seconds per passenger to go through the scanner while only 2 seconds is needed for the metal detector. Since the scanners have a 54% false positive rate, approximately half of those using the scanners receive some form of pat-down, further slowing the process. When hundreds of people are in line, that additional 8 to 30 seconds each adds up, resulting in substantial delays.
So while TSA claims that the scanners speed up the screening process, the opposite, in fact, is true.
While the TSA usually cites scanner costs ranging from $140,000 to $180,000 apiece, this is only the scanner cost and does not include associated airport modifications and installation expenses.
In the case of Akron-Canton airport, the total cost for four scanners was $2,342,567.17, which included $945,439.40 to relocate the food court. The checkpoint alone cost $1,397,127.77 for four machines, or an average cost of $349,281.94 each.
Since most airports usually require some building modifications, such as floor reinforcement, the typical scanner installation is likely closer to $500,000 than $400,000.
The 29 secondary airports received a total of 45 scanners at an estimated cost of $15.7 million and will screen a total of 50,337 passengers a year.
Of these, 18 airports handle fewer than 1,000 passengers daily but were equipped with 21 scanners at an estimated installed cost of $7.3 million to screen 9,538 passengers per day.
The smallest airport to receive scanners, Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Ohio, had average daily traffic of only 76 passengers based on 27,717 total enplanements in 2010. For Youngstown this works out to a cost of $12.60 per passenger in 2012. The largest of those with fewer than 1,000 passengers per day was Tallahassee Regional with 891 per day.
On average the airports in this group will screen 530 passengers per day, which equates to 33 passengers per hour in a 16-hour day. Since the metal detectors will remain in service, some number of passengers will use them, leaving the scanners to process fewer than 30 people per hour.
How much time could possibly be saved at airports that handle only 33 passengers an hour?
If the TSA truly wants to expedite and improve airport screening, it would use the scanners only as a secondary screening device , as originally approved by Congress in 2008, or as an option to metal detectors for those with metallic medical implants. If the scanners were used to screen only when passengers alarmed the metal detector, or as a personal choice by the passenger, things would work better and faster and would more equitably account for the variation in passengers’ circumstances.
The original program stipulated that passengers would first use the walk-through metal detectors. If an alarm was raised, they would be sent to the scanners for further screening. If an anomaly was present in both scans, then the passenger would be patted down or wanded, but only on the part of the body that showed the anomaly, not on the entire body.
Unfortunately, the scanners aren’t foolproof, and they fail to detect hidden items 44% of the time. Most of those items would have been detected if the metal detector had been used as the primary screening device. Almost all of the items found by the TSA in 2011 were found via the x-ray belt and walk-through metal detectors, not the scanners.
TSA has also avoided any discussion of the backscatter machines because of the lingering health and privacy problems. The agency appears to be attempting to mislead the public into believing that the backscatter scanners have the same privacy improvements as the MMW scanners. It continues to dodge Congressional demands for independent testing despite evidence that these scanners could result in an additional 100 cancer deaths each year.
The scanners have now become a politically charged and divisive issue rather than a tool used to detect contraband. There is also an implication of government corruption and deceit associated with the deployment of these systems, which should be investigated by an independent special prosecutor: has this government agency compromised passenger safety and imposed unnecessary procedures to protect private manufacturers’ profits?
(Photo: Flickr/Benjamin Sperandio)