SFO: Steady Vision, New Tools

Nowhere has the image of counterterrorism activity been more vivid than at the nation's airports. The exposure for catastrophic human damage, the scope of commercial assets at jeopardy, and the potential for socioeconomic havoc occasioned by a wounded...


Nowhere has the image of counterterrorism activity been more vivid than at the nation's airports. The exposure for catastrophic human damage, the scope of commercial assets at jeopardy, and the potential for socioeconomic havoc occasioned by a wounded transportation system have combined to make airport security a priority. Additionally, September 11 and air hijackings generally have given aviation security an emotional legacy that is now part of our national consciousness.'


Yet these issues were real before the war on terrorism began some 18 months ago. San Francisco International Airport, like other airports around the country, already had in place equipment and procedures intended to detect, prevent, mitigate and recover from a wide range of threatening incidents.''


It has become clear at SFO and elsewhere over the past year that the challenge to move security to the next level is about more than pressing the pedal to the floor, more than just adding resources. It is about doing two things simultaneously: Holding the existing system to more rigorous standards and probing, planning and executing the development of more sophisticated and innovative systems for tomorrow.'


Mark Denari and Bob McKinley are assistant deputy airport directors at SFO, for aviation security and international terminal operations respectively, and have the kinds of roles that the public imagines to be at the center—or at least the front line—of an airport's efforts. Of course, they are quick to dismiss that kind of characterization, pointing to the responsibilities and accomplishments of other airport executives and TSA officials.'Their roles, nonetheless, combine several functions that are mission critical.'


Getting a Head Start
McKinley has focused on the explosive detection system (EDS) that is now installed in the international terminal and is currently being implemented in the domestic terminals. The system uses InVision Technologies' CTX™ equipment, which sells for about $1 million a pop. The decision to go with InVision was based upon two elements. The first was familiarity. Four InVision machines were already operating at SFO when the decision was made to install an automated system for checking 100 percent of the baggage that would come through the new international terminal. (This plan was in place before federal mandates were issued.) Additionally, InVision was local to the Bay Area and thus provided easy access to executives and other personnel whenever necessary.''


From the operational perspective, both SFO and InVision had experience working off the "European model" for screening for explosive devices, a multi-stage process of using two-dimensional X-rays, human inspectors and CTX machines. The new system envisioned by McKinley and Denari would build off that approach but would eliminate the X-ray tool and use the CTX for all luggage, not just the pieces an X-ray had identified as suspicious. Just as important, InVision had more experience than others with in-line inspections and knew the issues surrounding baggage conveyor systems. Not to be diminished either was the wider aperture of the InVision equipment, allowing larger bags to be treated routinely.''


Beyond the European Model
In an airport that inspects between 12,000 and 15,000 bags per day, the first issue after "Does the machine do what it says it will do?" is efficiency. To that end, McKinley and Denari used mathematical modeling techniques to determine the best plan of action. They varied their input and assumptions according to historical records, estimates of passenger load and baggage volume that correlated with facility size, and capacity of the conveyor systems. They experimented with different scenarios, such as what would happen if several machines went down during peak periods (say, from a bag jam or mechanical problem).''


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