Charlotte/Douglas International Airport Joins List of Airports with Passenger Bomb Detection

Airport debuts new "puffer" technology in its security checkpoints on Wednesday


Passengers departing through checkpoint D at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport reacted with surprise and amused yelps as they passed through new bomb detectors Wednesday.

"It was a little scary," Evette Silva said as she emerged from the scanner. However, she said, it beats the old-fashioned patdown method. She and others said they also appreciated the fact you don't need to remove your shoes for this screening -- although many were shedding shoes Wednesday out of habit.

The Ionscan Sentinel II portals are equipped with more than a dozen air jets and take 17 seconds to analyze air samples, which supposedly is faster than old-fashioned hand searches.

They're known as puffer machines, a slight misnomer. They emit not so much a puff as a series of air jets that whoosh passengers as they pass.

The airport now has the machines at three of four checkpoints, A, C and D. Wednesday was the first full day of operation in Charlotte for the $170,000 machines. Transportation Security Administration officials say they didn't have the money to install the equipment at all checkpoints.

On Wednesday, airport security directed almost all passengers through the secondary-screening scanners at checkpoint D. However, a security spokesman said that when the checkpoints are busy, some passengers selected for secondary screening will be hand-checked.

The machines, to be deployed in about 40 of the nation's busiest airports by spring, analyze air samples to detect explosives, including gun powder and traces of nitroglycerin.

Although the equipment is designed to bolster detection of explosives and speed the screening process, passengers who are directed through the machines still have to pass through a metal detector. On top of that, some passengers Wednesday also underwent a third, manual inspection that included a belt-buckle check and a sweep of a handheld metal detector.

The explosive-sniffing machines sound an alarm if they detect a potential hazardous substance and have to be reset, which includes a wipe-down with a cleanser. The restart process takes a few minutes.

Meanwhile, TSA inspectors conduct a manual search of the suspect passenger to determine what set off the machine.

TSA spokesman Dwain Wilkins said that during hunting season it's common for some passengers to inadvertently carry ammunition through checkpoints, which the machines will detect. Passengers caught carrying ammo at the airport typically will have some explaining to do with law enforcement, he added.


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