TSA unveils first self-screening security lane at Las Vegas airport

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LAS VEGAS — The Transportation Security Administration unveiled the country’s first self-service screening system Wednesday at Harry Reid International Airport. Starting Monday, PreCheck passengers can participate in the pilot program designed to modernize checkpoints and give travelers more autonomy.

During the morning demonstration at the Las Vegas airport, TSA officials compared the new program to self-checkout lanes at the supermarket. Instead of TSA officers ushering passengers through the two-step process, travelers will scan their own bags and themselves. This will allow them to set their own pace and minimize their interactions with TSA employees.

The agency’s staff members will still check IDs and oversee secondary screenings of bags and pat-downs of passengers suspected of carrying banned items.

Officials said the objective is not to accelerate screenings but to improve the passenger experience.

“We would love it if this ultimately speeds things up, but this is not the primary purpose at this point,” said John Fortune, the Department of Homeland Security’s Screening at Speed program manager. “It’s primarily to reduce the officer burden at the checkpoint and make this a more pleasant, passenger-friendly experience.”

How self-screening security works

The new system occupies two lanes at the Innovation Checkpoint in Terminal 3, a real-life lab where the agency tests new security technology. The checkpoint also handles regular PreCheck passengers, who will be welcome to try out the new procedure from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. daily. TSA might also invite passengers at other checkpoints to participate in the program. Children younger than 12 and travelers who need special assistance must use the standard lanes.

The self-service screening system, which evolved from concept to reality in two years, combines technological components that passengers might recognize, such as CT scanners. However, travelers will need to learn a few new steps — and break some habits they’ve developed at other airport checkpoints.

“The traveling public has not seen this before,” Fortune said. “They’ve not experienced what it’s like to go through a checkpoint like this.”

On the morning of the big reveal, “passengers” (really TSA employees) demonstrated the self-service screening process. The volunteers stepped up to one of the six stations and followed the instructions displayed on a screen. A “Need Help?” button on the bottom left of the screen connected to a live video of an officer who was ready to provide answers.

At one station, a volunteer placed all of his items — roller bag, belt and wallet — in one bin, a change from current procedures requiring passengers to divvy up their personal belongings among multiple trays. He added a lightweight jacket to the pile, a reversal of PreCheck procedures. He pushed the bin onto the moving belt and proceeded to the in-person screener.

A TSA officer ushered passengers into a large glass box. An avatar provided guidance. Body parts highlighted in green were the correct position; red sections needed adjustments. Arrows and outlines helped achieve the correct stance: arms loosely resting at your side, feet slightly apart.

If the machine detects a suspicious object, a red arrow will appear, sending the person back out to divest. The passenger will place the object in a bin and try again — and again, if necessary. It took one volunteer several tries.

“Is it my watch?” she asked. It wasn’t, and she was eventually cleared to proceed.

“Have a good flight,” a display read alongside a cartoon image of a plane.

Meanwhile, the bins bobbing along the track will take one of three routes:

  • Carry-ons deemed copacetic will continue onward, where passengers can claim their belongings and continue on their way.
  • If the machine detects a questionable item, such as a liquid greater than 3.4 ounces, the bin will detour to an officer who will hand-search the bag. One big difference from current procedure: The officer will not have to carry any heavy items to a separate screening area and risk injury.
  • The third scenario involves highly dangerous objects, such as weapons. The screener will divert the suspicious bag to a locked box, out of the passenger’s reach.

In another change from current protocol, passengers do not have to return the bin to the stack. The tray will return itself, but only if it’s empty, a feature that will hopefully reduce the number of public announcements seeking the owner of a forgotten laptop or wallet.

Contactless technology is growing

The self-service security system in Las Vegas is only a prototype, but it’s part of a trend of new contactless technology at airports. It might never advance beyond the Innovation Checkpoint, or it could expand to other airports, following the same journey as Credential Authentication Technology (ID only at security checkpoints; no boarding pass required) and facial recognition (about 50 airports so far).

TSA officials said the test phase could last from a few months to a year. During this time, the agency will collect passenger data and feedback and fix any glitches.

“We’re expecting there to be some challenges. The question is: How easy will those challenges be to resolve?” Fortune said. “It can be an iterative process where we hopefully get a system that is seamless enough that it could be rolled out to the traveling public.”

Fortune said more innovations and advances could be destined for Vegas. Passengers could help test shoe scanners and flat panels with overhead screening capabilities. (Picture an E-ZPass toll system for people.) He hopes to try out wands that will replace pat-downs and, in a futuristic flight of fancy, structures that will compress the self-service technology into individual pods. “That’s two or three years away,” he said of the latter invention.

Biometrics are appearing at more airports. Delta Air Lines has been deploying a facial recognition program called Delta Digital ID at airports including Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles, and at LaGuardia and JFK in New York City. Instead of pulling out documents, eligible members of the airline’s SkyMiles loyalty program can simply look into the camera for bag drop and security.

Last week, United Airlines announced that it was premiering “touchless” identity verification at airport checkpoints in Chicago and Los Angeles for PreCheck members. American Airlines offers its own version at Reagan National Airport.

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