TSA to expand 3D carry-on baggage screening to reduce security wait times

The Transportation Security Agency will expand its 3D carry-on luggage scanning program it originally launched in more than a dozen airports this July.

The agency originally estimated the program would be rolled out in 145 airports by 2019, but now raised that projection to 200 scanners, David Pekoske, the agency’s administrator, told lawmakers Wednesday.

In contrast to traditional 2D scanners that take photos from just a couple of angles, 3D scanners will use computed tomography (CT) to take hundreds of images per second with a spinning X-ray camera. With a more granular picture of each bag, the CT technology can build an interactive image that can be rotated and analyzed from 360-degrees by screening staff.

“They are a significant enhancement in security effectiveness,” said Pekoske in an open hearing at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “And I’ve also watched passengers actually self-align behind the CT machines because it’s a better passenger experience.”

In addition to creating an intuitive and quick way for agents to analyze these bags, the technology will also lighten the load on travelers by requiring them to take fewer items out of their bag prior to scanning.

The TSA might be one of the most unloved federal agencies, but says its new scanning methods may one day allow flyers to leave their liquids and electronics inside their luggage without losing degrees of security. Pekoske also said that the agency has been able to detect 3D-printed firearms in travelers’ baggage, noting that the new CT scanners will make it easier.

However, just when that day will be is still yet to be determined. While the TSA has raised its deployment estimate to 200 machines, this will only cover a fraction of the country’s 2,200 screening lanes.

It’s one of the few ways that the TSA is trying to balance security with rolling back some of the restrictions that have been imposed in recent years, following airborne incidents after the September 11 attacks. The agency, created just months later, has been plagued with scandals and controversies. When the agency isn’t facing accusations of groping passengers passing through its security checkpoints, it’s under fire for conducting not-so-secret surveillance programs on innocent Americans. That so-called “Quiet Skies” program — first brought to light by The Boston Globe earlier this year, was jumped on by lawmakers.

Pekoske said that out of the “thousands of passengers” monitored, no arrests have been made, the program “hasn’t foiled any threat,” and yet data is kept on travelers for at least two years in case it’s proven useful in the future.

But the administrator wouldn’t go into much detail, as much of the program “is classified,” but said that he was “confident” it’s reduced the risk to the traveling public.

A TSA spokesperson did not return a request for comment.