Puffers in airplane security

The latest technology to be employed in the unconstitutional search of people attempting to board an aircraft while exercising their right to travel is puffers:

‘Puffers’ add to airport security
1/12/2006 1:29 PM
By: Lisa Reyes, News 14 Carolina

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Travelers at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport
will soon see new security measures. High-tech machines to detect
explosives will be located at three checkpoints.

The Transportation Security Administration says the imminent danger to
aviation these days is explosives. TSA officials demonstrated devices
called “explosive-detection trace portals” or “puffers” at the airport
on Thursday.

The machines puff air on travelers to dislodge particles from their skin or clothing.

“It loosens particles that are attached to a person or his clothing,
and those particles are analyzed by the machine for the presence of
explosives,” said John Gartland of TSA.

The devices take about 20-25 seconds to check each passenger.

The TSA purchased the three machines through federal funding. They cost
a little over $100,000, and about a 100 of them will be implemented in
airports nationwide.

I agree that explosives is the biggest threat to safe airplane travel.  Other weapons such as guns and knives are of little use if someone wanted to bring the airplane down.  And if the user of such a weapon were intent on attacking people in the cabin they wouldn’t make all that much progress before they were stopped by someone else in the cabin.  But a pound of explosives, about the size and weight of a pint of milk, in a tightly closed area like the cabin of an aircraft can do a lot of damage.  There is a Myth Busters episode on this very topic if you have any doubts.

In any case keeping explosives off of passenger airplanes is a good idea.  They aren’t useful for self-defense in an air cabin environment, as the knives and handguns are, and they represent a significant hazard to the entire aircraft and people on the ground.  The problem is–How do you do it?  As I have explained before with the explosive sniffing wasps the problem is one of false positives if you try to detect improvised and/or “homemade” explosives.  And if you don’t address those type of explosives you have a loophole any terrorist can waltz right through.  And the current explosives detection technology fails even on people that inadvertently contaminate their luggage.  If a skilled adversary were to be intent on bringing explosives on board a plane nothing short of a full search of everyone will be effective. So what’s the solution?  Use our limited resources on other things such as better intelligence as to who is a threat and interviews of passengers.  That will guard against both the known threats using existing weapons and the type of threats we haven’t thought of yet.

3 thoughts on “Puffers in airplane security

  1. This thought has crossed my mind more than once. How sensative are these machines? If I’m wearing shoes that have been around nitro-cellulose or ammonium nitrate, am I going to set of the alarms? What about tannerite? Smokeless powder? These are all easily accessable (with the exception of the nitro) to almost anyone, and many work around these products such as smokeless powder or ammonium nitrate on a daily basis.

    And what about people who do work around high explosives? Unimax and detcord are often used in mining operations. Are employees at those mines going to be detected? Will licensed explosives handlers have to carry documents showing that they will set off the alarms?

  2. I think that every American, post-9/11, takes the prospect of a terrorist strike within the U.S. seriously. But I hope that those folks who are genuinely concerned about their safety aboard a commerical airline flight in the U.S. realize that there is much more to federal security than merely new uniforms, metal detectors, x-ray machines, and explosive trace analyzers. That the focus of the security among nearly all pundits and bloggers is various aspects of the conspicuous checkpoint routines is evidence of the overall success of the federal avaition security.

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