TSA Nears A Goal: Letting You Keep Your Shoes On

Nov 23, 2011
Originally published on November 24, 2011 2:51 pm

Nearly 3.5 million holiday travelers are expected to board planes this Thanksgiving weekend. Many dread the long lines and invasive procedures of security checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration hopes to improve their experience — it's considering devices that would let passengers keep their shoes on through security checks.

Air travelers have only recently mastered the art of sliding out of coats, pulling out laptops and posing for an x-ray photoshoot in a full-body scanner. But a change to U.S. security procedures could come soon. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said recently that passengers will get to keep their shoes on in the near future.

"That would definitely be convenient," says traveler Brian Wolfe, as he unlaces his ankle-length suede boots at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport.

The TSA is considering devices that would save Wolfe the trouble, but still detect threats. Shoes became a concern in 2001, when would-be terrorist Richard Reid made it onto a Miami-bound flight with explosives in his sneakers.

The TSA has received numerous bids for devices that scan passengers' shoes as they wear them. One of the competing products is IDO Security's Magshoe, which can be found in hundreds of airports and cruise ships around the world.

"As long as you're still when you step onto the machine, it immediately reads the area from the soles of your shoes, midway up your calf. And then you step off the machine," says Michael Goldberg, the president of the Israel-based company. "You'll get a green or a red, which is a go/no-go signal."

Morpho Detection, part of the France-based Safran group, is another company vying for the bid. Unlike the Magshoe, prototypes of its ShoeScanner can detect chemical compounds in addition to metal objects.

"It detects a wide variety of explosive and in fact, non-explosive, threats," says spokesperson Steve Hill.

Morpho's device scans shoes in three different ways, but Hill says the U-shaped ShoeScanner is easy to use.

"As the passenger's standing in this taco shell, if you will, there are plastic doors that are closed in front of him or her," he says."And when the screening process of 8 to 12 seconds is complete, the doors either open or remain closed, if there's an alarm condition that's detected."

But shoe scanners could make airport security even more frustrating for passengers, says Steve Lott, of the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the airline industry.

"If we continue to add these reactive patches to an old system, it just bogs down the whole process," he says, "and it becomes very inefficient."

But for those who think current security procedures are too invasive, shoe scanners may be a step in the right direction.

Jay Stanley, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, thinks that scanning for traces of threatening material is an improvement over more subjective screenings that land too close for comfort for some passengers.

"We've never really had a problem with particle-sniffers," he says. "And in fact, we've encouraged the TSA to invest more money in developing those kinds of technologies, because they aren't really an invasion of privacy."

Brian Wolfe is looking forward to keeping his shoes on, but he's skeptical that the new technology will enhance airport security.

"I didn't feel unsafe before," he says. "And if somebody wanted to get around these things, they probably could."

The TSA hasn't announced a date when shoe scanners will be introduced in airports. For now, travelers will still have to shuffle through security in their socks.

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Nearly three-and-a-half million holiday travelers are expected to board planes this Thanksgiving weekend. Many dread the long lines and sometimes invasive security process. The Transportation Security Administration hopes to improve the experience. It's working on a device that would let passengers keep their shoes on through security checks. NPR's Beenish Ahmed reports.

BEENISH AHMED, BYLINE: Air travelers have only just mastered the art of sliding out of coats, pulling out laptops and posing for an x-ray photo shoot in a full-body scanner. But a change to the security line-up could come soon. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said recently that passengers will get to keep their shoes on in the near future.

BRIAN WOLFE: That would definitely be convenient.

AHMED: Brian Wolfe is unlacing his ankle-length suede boots at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport. The TSA is considering devices that would save him the trouble, but still detect threats.

Shoes became a concern in 2001, when would-be terrorist Richard Reid made it onto a Miami-bound flight with explosives in his sneakers.

The TSA has received numerous bids for devices that scan passengers' shoes as they wear them. One of the competing products is IDO Security's MagShoe, which can be found in hundreds of airports and cruise ships around the world. Michael Goldberg is president of the Israel-based company.

MICHAEL GOLDBERG: As long as you're still, once you step onto the machine, it immediately reads the area from the soles of your shoes, midway up your calf, and then you step off the machine. You'll get a green or a red, which is a go/no-go signal.

AHMED: Morpho Detection, part of the France-based Safran group, is another company vying for the bid. Unlike the MagShoe, prototypes of the ShoeScanner can detect chemical compounds, in addition to metal objects.

STEVE HILL: It detects a wide variety of explosive and, in fact, non-explosive threats.

AHMED: Morpho's device scans shoes in three different ways, but spokesperson Steve Hill says the U-shaped ShoeScanner is easy to use.

HILL: As the passenger's standing in this taco shell, if you will, there are plastic doors that are closed in front of him or her. And when the screening process of eight to 12 seconds is complete, the doors either open or remain closed if there's an alarm condition that's detected.

AHMED: But Steve Lott says shoe scanners could make airport security even more frustrating for passengers. He's with the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the airline industry.

STEVE LOTT: If we continue to add these reactive patches to an old system, it just bogs down the whole process, and it becomes very inefficient.

AHMED: But for those who think current security procedures are too invasive, shoe scanners are a step in the right direction. Jay Stanley, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, thinks scanning for traces of threatening material is an improvement over more subjective screenings that land too close to comfort for some passengers.

JAY STANLEY: We've never really had a problem with particle-sniffers and, in fact, we've encouraged the TSA to invest more money in developing those kind of technologies, because they aren't really an invasion of privacy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All footwear goes through the X-ray.

AHMED: Brian Wolfe is looking forward to keeping his shoes on, but he's skeptical that the new technology will enhance airport security.

WOLFE: I didn't feel unsafe before, and if somebody wanted to get around these things, they probably could.

AHMED: The TSA hasn't announced a date when shoe scanners will be introduced in airports. For now, travelers will still have to shuffle through security in their socks.

Beenish Ahmed, NPR News, Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please make sure your pockets are empty. This will help prevent a pat down. Money, wallets, you can hold in your hand. Everything else... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.