Shoe Scanning at Airport? Not Yet, Says TSA

Detection device has promise, but not quite ready for prime time


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Airline passengers hoping to someday go through security without ever having to take their shoes off will have to wait: The nation's airport security chief says a new shoe-scanning machine needs improvement.

"It's not good enough for prime time," Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief Kip Hawley said of the ShoeScanner, which scans footwear while worn.

Tests have revealed "security deficiencies" that prevent the machine from consistently finding weapons and bomb parts, Hawley said.

The government is continuing to test the ShoeScanner, which the TSA boss called "very promising technology" that would let passengers avoid a major checkpoint hassle: removing shoes. "It would be a great thing to have a new technology out there that allows them to keep their shoes on," Hawley said in an interview with USA TODAY.

An upgraded ShoeScanner was brought to a Homeland Security Department lab in New Jersey last week for testing, said Steve Hill, a spokesman for GE Security, which makes the device. The company, a General Electric subsidiary, is optimistic that recent improvements will meet TSA detection requirements, he said.

The ShoeScanner looked promising in January and has been highly touted as a way to ease congestion at security lines, which can become bogged down with large numbers of people taking their shoes on and off around a checkpoint. Four of the machines were installed at Orlando International Airport for passengers who pass a background check and pay $100 a year to airport contractor Verified Identity Pass of New York City. These travelers still must go through standard checkpoint procedures, but are allowed to use an express line.

Screening officials were aware of some of the machine's potential problems when it was approved for the Orlando test, so the TSA quietly added some backup security measures, Hawley said. The extra measures are "labor-intensive" for screeners and make mass deployment of the ShoeScanner unrealistic, he said.

ShoeScanners have been installed in seven other airports that hired Verified Identity Pass to speed up security for preapproved passengers. But the machines have never been turned on at those sites, which include San Francisco and Cincinnati airports and terminals at Newark, N.J., and New York's Kennedy.

Verified's CEO, Steven Brill, said approving the ShoeScanner would encourage more airports to hire his company and more travelers to join the program, known as Registered Traveler.

About 59,000 people have signed up for Verified's program.

The TSA may buy shoe-scanning machines to be used by all travelers, not just those who pay for faster security, Hawley said. "You can accelerate the throughput and you could potentially improve security," Hawley said.

The ShoeScanner costs about $200,000 and includes a sensor that detects explosives on people's fingertips.

Brill said a recent New York City focus group of frequent fliers found that they would much rather have quicker security than be allowed to keep their shoes on. "Our customers only seem to care that they go through faster," Brill said. "They don't care how."