Walk-through sniffer could speed up airport checks

SINGAPORE, June 6 Mon Jun 6, 2011 5:46am EDT

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SINGAPORE, June 6 (Reuters) - It could be the answer for every weary air traveller, a high-tech screening system that filters passengers according to risk and scans and "sniffs" them as they walk through, taking a fraction of the time of a usual security check.

Customs and immigration could also be combined at the same screening station, curbing queues and increasing time for that all-important pre-flight browsing or duty-free shopping.

At an annual meeting of airline chiefs in Singapore, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) displayed for the first time a mock-up of a three-channel passenger screening system of the future.

Pre-flight screening categorizes people according to risk, which then channels them into "enhanced", a polite way of saying highest risk, "normal" and then the least risky, which is "known traveller".

"It's the future we envision about 5 to 7 years from now," said Ken Dunlap, IATA's global director for security and travel facilitation.

"We're looking at a way of increasing security where we don't treat every passenger that has a pair toe-nail clippers as a potential terrorist. We're looking for a paradigm that is based on looking for bad people, not only bad things," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the IATA meeting in a plush casino resort in central Singapore.

Multiple layers of security checks in recent years have greatly increased the time it takes to get on a plane, leading to longer queues, frayed tempers and worries about invasive pat-downs.

IATA envisions technology developments that rapidly screen passengers, depending on the channel they go through, to cover advanced X-ray, shoe scanning, full-body screening, liquid detection and electronic sniffing for traces of explosives.

"What we'd like to have a passenger do is not break stride and walk right through to the checkpoint," Dunlap said.

He said 2.8 billion people were going to travel by air this year, rising to an estimated 16 billion by 2050. That meant the current screening systems and procedures had to change.

"For a lot of airports it's a nightmare scenario," he said, referring to more passengers and slowing screening times.

Some of the technology still needed development, such as high-tech sniffing technology for traces of explosives.

While it exists now, it still needs refining before it can detect traces of dangerous chemicals in passengers walking through a curtain of air, Dunlap said.

"What we're trying to do is figure out, do there need to be gates, what type of technology needs to go into this."

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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