TSA Eyes Big Leaps In Slowly Evolving Passenger Screening Techniques

airport Security checkpoint
Security checkpoints are slowly changing, but stakeholders have bold visions for the future.
Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security awarded two small businesses $1 million each this year to perfect handheld scanners that detect prohibited items on unscrupulous or absentminded passengers. The work being done by Spectral Labs and TeraMetrix may seem insignificant, but it is part of a sweeping, multiyear effort to develop more effective, less intrusive airport passenger-screening checkpoints. Following several decades of implementing new processes and technologies, it is also a sign of how difficult advancing aviation security has become.

Most of the protocols and processes that make up today’s layered approach to commercial aviation security in the U.S. stemmed from two short periods of rapid development following major events. Arguably the most well-known security changes came in the few years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when 19 al-Qaida terrorists capitalized on weaknesses in the aviation system to hijack four domestic flights and set off a chain of catastrophic events that killed 2,977 others. 

  • Incremental changes mark aviation security’s progress
  • U.S. airports are seeing upgraded screening devices
  • Checkpoint of the future is in the works

By the end of 2003, U.S. airport security was in the hands of a new agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with a $4 billion annual budget. New machines at airports were screening 100% of passengers’ baggage—up from 5% before September 2001 (AW&ST Feb. 18, 2002, p. 48). More than 6,000 U.S. aircraft had new, hardened cockpit doors installed to prevent unauthorized personnel from accessing the flight deck.

The post-9/11 changes, many of which were adopted in other countries as well, built on an initial flurry of activity that took place 30 years earlier. A spate of hijackings in the 1960s, including eight in January 1969 alone, led to a series of measures, including the first universal passenger and carry-on baggage screening mandate  (AW&ST Dec. 11, 1972, p. 22). A December 1972 FAA emergency rule gave airlines 30 days to implement the new system.

In recent years, change has not come as quickly. Yet if the TSA and its parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), succeed in their mission, the gradual improvements will combine to revolutionize the passenger experience.

The scanners being developed by Spectral and TeraMetrix feed into Screening at Speed (SAS), an ambitious DHS Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate-led Apex program that aims to turn passenger screening into more of a self-guided activity—with lots of technology monitoring both travelers and their belongings for risks.

“Just like self-checkout at grocery stores, self-tagging checked baggage or [automated teller] machines, many passengers prefer an experience that they can complete all by themselves, at their own pace,” says a 2020 DHS solicitation related to the effort. “[The] SAS is exploring ideas to bring similar concepts to the passenger screening process.”

Looking at the big picture, the aim is to use myriad technologies, from video surveillance to systems that detect prohibited items to screening passengers as they move through designated areas. Rather than have checkpoints that act as choke points by forcing people to queue in specific areas, the technology would do its work as passengers move from landside to their gates. Initially, most of the benefits will likely be reaped by the group of so-called trusted travelers that have been vetted for expedited screening, with the TSA targeting five years from concept to deployment for new technologies.

Interest in testing video’s capabilities has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. In February and March, the DHS greenlighted $200,000 in funding to two companies, Deep North and Lauretta AI, that specialize in using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze video feeds in real time. 


The awards are part of a broad effort to minimize the need for contact between passengers and screeners. Deep North and Lauretta will develop systems that anonymously monitor passengers and their belongings to ensure they are following protocols and detect when they need assistance. 

“These video solutions will validate that passengers are properly progressing through the screening process, passengers needing assistance navigating the self-screening portal are quickly identified, and social distancing measures are maintained,” the DHS explains. 

Rather than facial recognition or other biometrics, the systems will use a unique identifier that expires once the passenger leaves the screening area. The DHS goal is to integrate video-based AI analytics with automated bagging and body-scanning systems to create “a robust self-service screening solution”—key to a notional checkpoint of the future, the agency says.

“Future passenger self-screening portals are expected to not only keep travelers and [screeners] safer in pandemic situations like the one we face today but also will improve the quality of screening from a security perspective and provide an innovative and convenient experience for airline passengers,” says John Fortune, a Screening at Speed program manager. 

Screening at Speed is one of several Apex programs, which are the S&T Directorate’s way of connecting DHS goals or stakeholder needs and emerging technology to solve problems—and make the country safer.

The Spectral and TeraMetrix scanners are one small step along the future-checkpoint journey. Part of the DHS Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program that targets nimble companies to develop products quickly, the scanners are designed to eliminate physical pat-downs of passengers after alarms indicate they may have a banned object or substance. 

Under an initial round of funding, the companies were tasked with developing functioning prototypes using millimeter-wave technology, with at least 3 hr. of battery life and  a per-unit cost of no more than $5,000 in bulk. Both companies met the targets. 

The Phase II funding supports expanded development and testing of devices that will detect and classify explosives and provide real-time resolutions.

“Successful development and implementation of these wand technologies will improve [the] passenger experience and reduce burden and pat-downs by Transportation Security officers while at the same time enabling more thorough screenings,” says Karl Harris, a Screening at Speed project manager. “Through the DHS S&T SBIR program, we are pursuing the development of two approaches for new hand-held scanners using newly available and low-cost 5G electronics and automotive radar devices.”

Once Phase II is complete, in about two years, the DHS will evaluate each device and determine the next steps.

“Development of contactless alarm resolution tools is a game-changing capability for reducing physical contact during the screening process and staying ahead of the changing threat landscape,” says Sharene Young, manager of the TSA portfolio within the S&T Directorate. “We are very excited to see how this capability matures during Phase II.”

While future checkpoints are developed, current ones are being steadily improved. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, many airports were nearly empty for months at a time. The TSA made the best of the unfortunate situation, accelerating deployment of several systems without having to worry about disrupting activity at busy airports.

Reinforced cockpit doors
Reinforced cockpit doors were one of the major changes introduced after 9/11. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Among the new systems greeting U.S. passengers returning after a travel hiatus is computed tomography (CT) scanners for carry-on bags, which produce 3D images of bag contents, reducing the need for manual inspections. The agency has more than 300 CT machines at 140 of the 500 U.S. commercial airports. 

The TSA also has more than 1,000 credential authentication technology (CAT) machines at 140 airports. CAT machines automatically verify identification documents and confirm flight information without a TSA officer having to examine a boarding pass. An enhanced version, known as CAT-2, integrates a camera and self-scanning technology—another step toward the largely automated checkpoint of the future. 

“These technologies and enhancements represent significant advancements from current equipment used for identity verification and the screening of accessible property, reduce overall contact during screening and improve the passenger experience,” TSA Executive Assistant Administrator for Security Operations Darby LaJoye told U.S. lawmakers during a July hearing.

Progress on the next-generation CT scanner, the Checkpoint Property Screening System, is advancing as well. The new machines would project images only when an alarm is triggered, boosting efficiency and reducing the required manpower. Requests for proposals issued this year call for deployment of at least 15 machines—and up to 400 by 2025.

Another area receiving heightened interest during the pandemic is biometrics. While already part of future passenger processing strategies before COVID-19 emerged, its potential to expedite screening and boarding while keeping people separated and maximizing available labor has stakeholders looking to fast-track testing and deployment. 

Biometrics’ role in international aviation security protocols was cemented in a 2017 United Nations Security Council resolution that mandated their use to help track terrorists. The resolution’s requirements, which also include using watchlists and sharing Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Records, defined sets of passenger data, marked the first examples of tactics pioneered by the S&T Directorate being mandated internationally. 

The resolution “is of special significance for DHS because it was the first time the Security Council established a binding international legal requirement that all UN member states needed to install and use aviation security methods that DHS pioneered,” a 2020 Atlantic Council report on the DHS’ future says. “DHS had campaigned for years for the universal use of these technologies to make it harder for terrorists and criminals to evade detection when they travel internationally.”

One biometric-based trial in progress tests data sharing and integration between the TSA’s Secure Flight prescreening system and U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Traveler Verification Service system to verify a passenger’s identity at the TSA checkpoint. The pilot program at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport allows eligible Delta Air Lines elite flyers to opt in for facial identification—the TSA’s preferred biometrics technique—using a live image taken at a checkpoint. The image is compared with previously supplied images, such as a passport picture, to verify identity. 

“Particularly now, in the midst of this pandemic, self-service technologies that enhance security and reduce physical contact seem worthwhile to test, and we are glad to support this initiative,” says Detroit’s TSA Federal Security Director Steve Lorincz. “This is one of many such pilots at domestic airports, and we continue new test parameters, this time with airline and interagency partners.”

Efforts to enhance existing protocols also continued during the pandemic. A pilot-union-led effort to require hardened cockpit doors on freighters, which were left out of the post-9/11 rule because the FAA determined the cost outweighed the benefits, is again underway in Congress.

The Air Line Pilots Association is also calling on the FAA to meet a 2018 congressional mandate to require newly delivered aircraft to have secondary barriers that close off galleys and protect the flight deck when pilots or cabin crew members open the cockpit door in flight. An FAA-tasked industry working group completed its report—which includes implementation of recommendations with a compliance window of no more than 36 months—in early 2020.

While the pandemic has prompted aviation security stakeholders to reprioritize some projects, it has also added to their workload. In many jurisdictions, including the U.S., aviation security officers now must enforce pandemic-related guidance and mandates, such as wearing masks. 

New sources of trouble are expanding the traditional high-risk pool beyond hijackers and bombers. In 2019, U.S. authorities recorded about two incidents of inflight disturbances for every 1 million passengers screened. Through the first six months of 2021, the figure was 12 incidents per 1 million. The frequency of firearms has doubled, to about 10 per 1 million screened passengers.

The figures point to a shift in risk—one that is backed by a recently issued  DHS advisory.

“The [U.S.] continues to face a diverse and challenging threat environment leading up to and following the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as well religious holidays [that] we assess could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence,” warns a DHS National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin issued Aug. 13. “These threats include those posed by domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences.”

While not focused on aviation specifically, the bulletin warns of risks that align with the air travel environment, including threats “exacerbated by impacts of the ongoing global pandemic, including grievances over public health safety measures and perceived government restrictions.” It cites extremists’ penchant for targeting “crowded commercial facilities or gatherings” as part of their plans. 

Commercial aviation has long recognized public areas such as ticket counters and checkpoints as high-risk, and a series of fatal attacks inside airports in recent years prompted action. Those attacks include a multiphased strike at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in 2016 that left 45 dead, as well as shootings inside Los Angeles International Airport in 2013 and Fort Lauderdale International Airport in 2017 that left six dead—including the first TSA officer killed on the job.

In the U.S., the TSA led a working group that developed best practices for public safety, incorporating both domestic stakeholder views as well as input from experts from Europe, the U.S. and Israel. A 2020 evaluation by the Government Accountability Office acknowledged the TSA’s progress but recommended that the agency develop a follow-on plan for engaging stakeholders, generating ideas and sharing best practices in response to evolving threats. The TSA concurred.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.