New machines allow TSA workers to quickly and thoroughly check bags

Feb. 5--COLONIE -- Winter break this year should be just a little less hectic for the Transportation Security Administration employees who labor out of sight in the depths of Albany International Airport terminal.

There, checked luggage is examined for explosives and other hazards before being loaded on baggage carts and taken to waiting aircraft.

A week and a half ago, five new machines went into operation, using advanced scanning technology not unlike that found in a hospital to more thoroughly examine and analyze the contents of each bag.

Heavy lifting and manual searching of most of the baggage has been eliminated, reducing back strain and physical injuries the workers previously risked.

Injuries usually are reduced when the machines are introduced, said Brian Johansson, the TSA's top person in Albany.

And the workers can handle more bags per hour, manually searching only those whose contents trigger an alarm.

As a result, passengers will see fewer ruffled clothes and accompanying cards informing them the TSA was in their suitcase.

"When we get the public school break the next few weeks, it'll be much easier" to cope with the flood of bags, said Kevin Pettograsso, a TSA agent who was operating one of the CT-80 explosive detection systems Wednesday afternoon.

Each of the machines, from Reveal Imaging Technologies Inc. of Bedford, Mass., costs $350,000.

Perhaps the best news for airport CEO John O'Donnell: The TSA picked up the entire tab.

The machines produce a three-dimensional image, so TSA officers don't have to manually reposition them to get a better view of something questionable, as they often do on the X-ray scanners for carry-on baggage upstairs at the security checkpoint.

When an alarm sounds, the agent goes through several steps before resorting to a manual inspection.

The software operating the machines can be upgraded to detect emerging threats, Johansson said. "What we're most interested in here are explosives," he added.

Use of the machines could eventually be expanded to the security checkpoints, where they would check carry-on items.

A pilot program already is under way at Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport, and it's not just explosives that can be detected.

In one test of the equipment in Syracuse, "they could detect the difference between red wine and white wine," Johansson said.

So far, 232 of the new scanners -- smaller and less expensive than their predecessors -- are in operation at 88 airports, said Lara Uselding, TSA regional public affairs manager. Other tools, from bottle scanners to whole body imaging devices, are also being rolled out, she said.