Friday, February 20, 2009

Pilot Program Tests Millimeter Wave for Primary Passenger Screening

This week, TSA began testing MMW technology in the place of a metal detector at Tulsa International Airport to assess passenger throughput and acceptance.

Currently, 18 airports have millimeter wave equipment installed at checkpoints in a “secondary” screening configuration, which means that metal detectors are still the primary method of screening passengers. At these airports, randomly selected passengers and those requiring secondary screening can be screened by millimeter wave technology as a non-invasive alternative to a pat-down from an officer.

In Tulsa, instead of walking through the metal detector, passengers will go directly through the millimeter wave machine. A passenger can opt not to go through the unit, but will go through the metal detector and get a pat-down instead. Signage at the checkpoint informs travelers about the technology and lets them know that using it is voluntary. We’ve included one of the signs below.

So far the pilot seems to be going well, as noted in an article in USA Today. In the first three days of primary MMW at Tulsa, 3,780 passengers have been screened using the technology and only 8 people have opted for the metal detector and a pat-down.

In addition to the security benefit of whole body imaging – it can detect metallic and non-metallic threat items – the technology also reduces the need to pat-down passengers with hip replacements, prosthetics and other surgical implants. At airports without Whole Body Image machines, when passengers alarm the metal detector, the alarm must be resolved through a hand-held metal detector and a pat down. This often takes two to four minutes as opposed to about 15 seconds with millimeter wave.

For every person who is hesitant to go through the millimeter wave portal for whatever reason, there are 100 people with metallic surgical implants that are rejoicing. Here is a quote from Thomas Frank’s USA Today Article:

“For passengers with metallic hips or knees, the scanners were a relief from metal detectors, which invariably sound alarms that lead to pat-downs. ‘I walked through, raised my arms and was done,’ said a beaming Larry Brenden, 43, of Albuquerque. ‘I was like, what, no pat-down?"

And yes, whenever we talk about whole body imaging we get lots of comments and questions about privacy. We suggest checking out 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl’s commentary on millimeter wave or this article by the producer of Ms. Stahl’s segment. For anyone just hearing about millimeter wave and wanting to know more, please read Blogger Bob’s two previous MMW posts: [link 1] [link 2]. The short version: the technology is completely safe, WBI images are never transmitted, printed or stored, the officer at the machine cannot see the image and the officer viewing the image cannot see the passenger.

In the next two months, the pilot program will expand to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City.

If you have the chance to go through a millimeter wave machine – in primary or secondary – please share your thoughts here on the blog.

- Poster Paul

EoS Blog Team


TSA’s partnership with European civil aviation authorities has also had a significant impact on TSA’s decision to begin the Primary MMW pilot. A Primary MMW trial at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands has been underway since late 2006. Prior to TSA’s pilot program, TSA technology experts met with Dutch civil aviation authorities and technology experts to discuss the process and recent results.


Including the above, three signs will be on display at the security checkpoint for airports participating in the Primary MMW pilot. See the other two below. All three are currently on display at Tulsa.