By May 31, going through the inspection lanes at Buffalo Niagara International Airport will no longer prove such a “revealing” experience.
The Transportation Security Administration has begun a national replacement of airport X-ray machines that passengers complain are a tad too specific in displaying every conceivable body part. Though no dates are yet available, the TSA this week assured the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, operator of the airport, that new technology with only “stick figure” images will replace the old machines by summer.
“The new ones will perform a similar function, but just show a stick figure,” said William R. Vanecek, NFTA director of aviation. “They will still show a suspicious item, but nobody will now see any portion of a body image.”
After a terrorist smuggled a bomb hidden in his underwear onto a trans-Atlantic flight on Christmas 2009, the TSA ordered new inspection technology that left nothing to the imagination. TSA personnel in a separate booth away from the inspection lane viewed naked images of boarding passengers and then phoned their front-line counterparts to report anything suspicious.
Passengers around the nation complained about the invasion of privacy, but eventually seemed to accept the practice in the name of improved security.
“At Buffalo we had a very, very, very little amount of complaints,” said Brett O’Neil, TSA spokesman. “In a week, maybe two or three.”
Anyone strenuously objecting to the explicit images could refuse, he added, but were subjected to a full body pat-down.
O’Neil said the almost three million passengers who stream through the local inspection lines every year should be enthused about the new technology not only for privacy reasons, but for expediency, too. Inspectors will no longer view body images off site, but directly at the inspection lane, where the stick figures will also be visible to boarding passengers. Inspectors at the machines can then handle problems without direction from an off-site colleague.
“This relieves people’s fears about privacy and speeds up the process too,” O’Neil said.
Travelers concerned about exposure even to low dose X-rays also should feel better about the new process, he added, because the new machines are based on microwave technology. Five lanes will be converted for the new machines at Buffalo Niagara, part of 174 around the country.
Vanecek said the conversion will not affect Niagara Falls International Airport since X-ray machines were never introduced at the smaller facility. But he said he also is looking forward to the new process at Buffalo Niagara, especially as thousands of travelers each day attempt to wind their way through only five inspection lanes.
“You have this new layer of privacy and it will speed up the screening,” he said, “which will be great for us.”