Harrisburg International Airport adds full-body scanners

Harrisburg Press and Journal

The next time you catch a flight at Harrisburg International Airport you will be asked if you would like to forego the usual walk through a metal detector for a trip through a state-of-the-art security device, a tall, bulky metal and glass portal that looks like a prop from an old George Pal science-fiction movie.

As you stand inside, arms raised, a harmless amount of electromagnetic waves will bounce off your body, projecting a picture of your torso onto a computer screen that allows an airport security worker to see whether or not you’ve hidden a bomb or other weapon beneath your clothes.

Special software blurs parts of your body on the screen, so the security worker, studying your form in a nearby office, cannot see your face or, well, your more private features.

The Transportation Safety Administration opened two of the machines, called millimeter wave scanners, at HIA’s terminal on Thursday, Sept. 9, part of a nationwide effort to beef up security at U.S. airports in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

HIA is one of 28 U.S. airports to get the new devices, purchased with millions of dollars in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. The devices, which cost  $130,000 to $170,000 apiece, also have been installed at Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington international airports, said TSA officials.

The scanners are better than metal detectors because they can detect plastic explosives as well as metallic weapons, said Thomas Coury, the TSA’s federal security director at HIA.

“It will detect anything on the body,’’ said Coury, and it is safe – the amount of energy emitted by the device is less than the energy released by a cell phone.

Travelers can choose between the scanners and metal detectors, and each has its benefits. If you unwittingly set off the alarm in a metal detector, security personnel may pat you down or search you with a detecting wand. None of that happens with the scanner – it sees everything, so there’s no need.

“It’s more advanced and less obtrusive,’’ said Coury.

Critics have worried that the new scanner reveals too much of the body – it invades your privacy, and travelers don’t want the skies to be that friendly, they argue.

Images are permanently deleted and can’t be stored or transmitted, said Ann Jones, a spokeswoman for the TSA.

If you’re seeing Grandma off on her flight home to Florida, you might suggest she choose one of the two new scanners installed at HIA: Hip and knee replacements do not set off any alarms in the devices, unlike the metal detectors, Jones said.

The scanners and metal detectors stand side by side at HIA’s passenger checkpoint. September is a good month to install the devices; it’s the third-slowest month of the year for travel at HIA, said Scott Miller, an airport spokesman. Travel picks up substantially in October, he said.

Having both old and new technologies will cut down on the waiting time for travelers trying to board their flights, said Coury.
More devices will be deployed at the nation’s airports – and more federal security personnel will be needed to study the device’s screens. The feds will need an additional 5,300 security workers, and about $218 million is budgeted in 2011 to hire them, said Coury.

Is the metal detector on its way out of our airports?

“Both units will remain for the foreseeable future,’’ said Coury, but he adds, “Who can predict far out?’’

Scridb filter