The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) is deep into upgrading its systems to make the process of getting through the airport and the screening process as safe and seamless as possible.
Here's the latest on the new devices and procedures being deployed, and what to expect next.
CT scanning of luggage
Next time you put your bags through the airport scanner, the device may be similar to hospital CT scans (formerly CAT scans) invented for medical imaging. The TSA has installed 320 of these improved Computed Tomography scanners at airports around the country. They provide color-coded, rotating 3D scans, giving more accurate pictures than the old school X-ray machines — and, the TSA hopes, speed the screening process by reducing the need for physical searches.
To help these scanning systems get even smarter, TSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are working with private sector partners on developing machine-learning software programs that will be able to analyze the result of CT scans faster and more accurately than humans, says Dan Tanciar, the chief innovation officer with the Pangiam technology company, which is helping to develop this Aggregated Threat Detection technology with Google’s artificial intelligence group.
The program will constantly update its own algorithm (the “learning” of the machine) to reflect the confirmation or denial of its analysis after a targeted bag is physically inspected. Dubbed Project Dartmouth, the tech is expected to be tested in airports soon.
New body scans
Similarly, the TSA is working with partners to develop new High Definition Advanced Imaging Technology (HD-AIT) systems to more efficiently and accurately scan passengers. These systems are designed to be improvements upon the machines you currently see, where you stand with your hands over your head while your whole body is scanned.
Your hands can remain at your sides with these devices, whose prototype includes a specialized shoe scanner, as well as more powerful body scanners that will eliminate the need for people to take off their shoes or coats. They are meant to both catch more forbidden items and reduce false alarms, resulting in fewer passenger pat downs, according to the TSA website.
You may someday — maybe soon — only need your face to verify your identity. The agency is now testing facial recognition tech, in partnership with Delta Air Lines, in pilot programs at Atlanta’s Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Delta’s TSA PreCheck customers can use new “express lobby and bag drop” stations at these airports, where they verify their identity through a hands-free facial scan, print and attach a bag tag from a self-serve kiosk, and place their bag on the conveyer. They don’t need a physical boarding pass or ID, or even to pull out their smartphones.
“You avoid the hassle of having to keep taking out your driver’s license or passport throughout the process, all the way from checking baggage, to security screening, to entering the gate,” says Tanciar, whose company works on this identification software program as well. “It can make the whole process smoother — and safer.” This Touchless TSA PreCheck is currently only being used with Trusted Travelers in the TSA PreCheck and CBP Global Entry programs who opt in to the process.
And Carter Langston, TSA spokesman, confirmed that a handful of airports, including Detroit's, are piloting a separate facial recognition system (for Trusted Travelers who opt in when getting their boarding pass) that compares a live photo taken at the TSA document checkpoint with the ID the passenger submits there.
Technology buffs can check out these and other new devices in test deployments at TSA’s Innovation Checkpoint at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas.
While TSA has published a privacy impact assessment about its use of biometrics, privacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have expressed serious concerns about the use of biometrics and automated facial recognition in the travel screening process. The foundation calls the strategy “an alarming vision of pervasive biometric surveillance at airports which cuts against the right to privacy and freedom of association, and a dangerous sharing of data with private partners.”
“We have a lot of concerns about this program, even for those who do opt in," says India McKinney, EFF’s director of federal affairs. "We all hate standing in line, but travelers shouldn’t have to sacrifice their privacy and personal security for convenience.”
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DHS officials insist that the current facial recognition program is safe from hacking and shouldn't elicit privacy concerns because, as stated in the agency's privacy impact assessment report, the system “does not require a database, it simply compares an image from the document presented by the passenger against an image taken of the passenger at the checkpoint. Images are not stored.”
Virtual driver's licenses
Also coming: the ability to keep your driver’s license on your phone. The digital form of your ID may be accepted in select states, using various apps, as soon as this spring, according to TSA spokesperson Lorie Dankers.
(And remember that you’ll need to have your Real ID ready by Oct. 23, 2023, if you want to use a driver’s license as your form of identification.)
Alternate airport screening programs
Passengers not part of existing Trusted Traveler programs still have a few new options to get fast-tracked through screening lines. Passengers can make timed reservations for screenings at selected airports throughout the country, depending on your departure terminal.
Newark Liberty International Airport’s VirtuaLine, Los Angeles International Airport's Fast Lane, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s Spot Saver and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport's Security Fast Pass are among the programs that allow travelers to skip the regular screening lines and reserve a spot in advance for special facilitated lanes.
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer's, The San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.