- Newark Star Ledger -
Newark Liberty International Airport is in line this year to receive full-body scanners, x-ray machines that proponents say could have stopped "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he boarded a plane headed for Detroit on Christmas Day.
The call for more full-body scanners — high-tech machines that can show hidden contraband, but controversial for leaving too little to the imagination — has grown louder after the latest terror attempt in the skies.
Newark Liberty, one of America’s busiest airports, is undergoing a modernization of its Terminal B that has dramatically increased the size of its passenger screening areas and reduced its waiting times. Given the latest terror incident, airport officials are hoping the scanners arrive early in 2010.
A Transportation Security Administration representative said 150 full-body scanners will go to airports throughout the U.S. this year and Newark Liberty is likely to be among the airports that get them, considering its heavy flight volume and the fact one of the planes hijacked in the deadly Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks departed from Newark.
"We designed our new passenger screening spaces in Terminal B to accommodate future TSA equipment deployments," said John Kelly, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Newark Liberty. "We’re looking forward to facilitating and helping with their installation as soon as the TSA has them available."
Some lawmakers say the scanners, which cost up to $160,000 each, could have prevented Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane on Christmas Day with the explosive materials he had sewn into his underwear. When Abdulmutallab tried to detonate the bomb on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, he was tackled by a hero passenger from Amsterdam.
Nineteen American airports, the closest being Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, already use the Star Trek-like, full-body scanners, which opponents say are too costly and violate privacy.
Newark Airport’s Terminal B will have a total of 12 passenger screening lanes when construction of all sections of the terminal are completed in March. Given the recommendations that full-body scanners be placed at every other lane, that would mean the airport would install six scanners at a total cost of nearly $1 million.
Michael German, an American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel in Washington, D.C., called the process "a virtual strip search" and said experts have determined the method is not particularly effective at detecting plastic explosives.
"The image that could be collected is very graphic," German said. "People have a serious issue with getting naked in front of a government agent, as they should."
The TSA representative said the new scanners, made by a different manufacturer, are not intrusive.
"You can see the shape; the face is blurred," she said. "We worked with the other manufacturer to make sure the image is not intrusive, but could still effectively detect items concealed under clothing."
She added that the images would be looked at in a remote room by an officer who could not see or interact with the passengers.
"We’re very supportive of the technology," she said. "It has proven very effective in finding concealed items."
In the days after the planned Christmas Day attack, a crying baby was frisked at an airport checkpoint in Cancun, Mexico, before a flight to Newark. Passengers on other flights throughout the U.S. were told they couldn’t use the bathroom or read books for the final hour of the trips.
Just as the failed attempt by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid eight years earlier led to passengers having to remove their clogs and high heels, the unsuccessful bombing last week has prompted more restrictions for travelers.
But some aviation experts say the TSA measures — including the installation of full-body scanners — are treating the symptoms and not the cause.
"It’s unfortunate that one incident in Amsterdam, where you had bad security, is causing us to chase our tails here," said Mike Boyd, an aviation analyst based in Evergreen, Colo.
Abdulmutallab was on a government advisory list and was reported by his own father for increasingly militant tendencies, but was not put on the no-fly list.
Boyd was particularly perplexed by the rule prohibiting the reading of books for the last hour. "I guess Agatha Christie must be a security threat," he said.
"Some of us joke that TSA stands for Travel Suppression Agency," added Bob Mann, a Port Washington, N.Y., airline industry analyst and consultant who formerly was an American Airlines executive.
The TSA backed off on some of its new restrictions, giving discretion to captains on each flight.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who chaired the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, said that instead of new in-flight rules, the emphasis should be on finding out why suspected terrorist Abdulmutallab was allowed to board a plane when there were so many warning signs.
"The idea that we are going to prevent someone from going to the bathroom in the last hour is nonsense," Kean said. "The right reaction is to find out what went wrong."
The TSA representative defended the need to pat down babies on international flights, saying, "There have been examples where adults have used their children to smuggle illegal items, unfortunately."
She said passengers on international flights would need to set aside additional time before boarding, but saw few changes for domestic passengers.
"Security is evolving," she said. "It needs to be dynamic so that anyone who studies the system to gain any advantage would find that hard to do."
Mann said he wished some of the money spent on high-tech equipment would instead go toward investigation. "We have no ability to connect the dots," Mann said. "For eight years, we’ve been going in the wrong direction."