In the wake of the failed attempt to blow up an American jetliner on Christmas Day, the number of $150,000-per-unit full-body scanners in US airports is expected to more than triple next year, the Transportation Security Administration says.
Many security experts have suggested that a full-body scanner – which allows screeners to scan a person’s body through their clothing – would have seen the explosive that the alleged would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had stitched into his underwear. But the sudden rush for full-body scanners has met with deep skepticism in some quarters.
Not only do civil libertarians call them “virtual strip searches,” but some security and industry analysts say the machines are easily foiled by hiding explosives in body cavities. Moreover, their huge cost puts further stress on an already-troubled industry – meaning these costs will likely be passed on to the consumer.
“You would have to put [scanners] in every airport from Nantucket to Namibia to make them effective, and even then, they’re not 100 percent effective,” says aviation expert George Hobica. “Small airports and foreign airports are the chink in the armor.”
150 scanners planned for 2010
There are about 40 full body scanners operating in about 19 US airports, although the majority are used for secondary searches, following an amendment approved by the US House of Representatives last summer saying the machines could not be used for primary screenings.
Karen Pride of the Chicago Department of Transportation, which operates O’Hare and Midway airports in Chicago, said O'Hare would be receiving new scanners in 2010 but would not say when and in what numbers.
Besides O’Hare, Boston’s Logan International Airport will also receive scanners, according to the Transportation Security Administration. A total of 150 are planned for 2010 throughout the US, although that number is expected to increase.
The ACLU contends that the scanners are not fool-proof in monitoring explosives, which can be hid in a body cavity. That was the case with Al Qaeda suicide bomber Abdullah Hassan Tali Assiri, who in September attacked and injured Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in his home after passing through two separate airport scanners with the explosives hidden in a body cavity.
“I’m somewhat surprised [the government] is touting [body scanners] as the answer, when it's also apparent terrorists have utilized secreting devices in body cavities which this certainly wouldn’t detect,” says Michael German, ACLU Washington Legislative Office policy counsel.
Body scanners could be used in special cases to detect legitimate suspects, says Mr. German. “But for the average traveler, it’s completely unnecessary and a waste of security resources,” he says.
“If we’re investing money in new technology, let's invest in new technology that would be better than body-scanner technology and [have] no negative consequences,” he says. “There is a smart way to approach this problem and to do so in knee-jerk reactionary way is no way to go.”
There is also the cost the scanners pose to the airline industry. Airport security has evolved in stages in the years since 9/11 as each thwarted terrorist attempt is answered with an increased stage of security, from bag checks at the gate to the removal of belts and shoes. The scanners will become the costliest solution yet.
Passengers will likely bear the brunt of the financial toll from airlines faced with recovering money lost from hikes in airport operational costs, says J. Randall Nutter, an aviation expert and visiting professor of business at Southeast University in Nanjing, China. This could add to the fatigue consumers already feel from other added costs.
“None of this helps. It’s an industry that has struggled to be profitable,” Mr. Nutter says. “One more of these blows make it that much harder.”
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