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Chris Jones

McCarran Chosen as Weapon-Detection Test Site

29 December 2004

McCarran International Airport will soon become one of the nation's few testing points for technologies the federal government hopes will greatly reduce terrorists' ability to smuggle bombs and other weapons aboard commercial aircraft.

The Transportation Security Administration last week told its regional directors that 16 "model airports" have been selected from a pool of more than 70 applicants to further test new explosive trace portals and/or X-ray backscatter devices.

Las Vegas will initially receive two explosive trace portals, said a Dec. 22 letter written by TSA's Jim Blair, who was McCarran's security director from May 2002 through last month's promotion to assistant administrator for aviation operations. No installation date has been determined, but site surveys are scheduled to begin next month.

Explosive trace portals, which can cost more than $730,000 each, require a traveler to stand within a semienclosed area while several quick puffs of air are released over his or her body. The portal quickly analyzes the air for traces of explosives, and none are detected, a computerized voice tells passengers to move on.

Initially, only a small portion of McCarran's 40-plus million passengers will undergo the secondary screening procedure, however.

"It won't be a full-scale deployment," Jennifer Peppin, a TSA regional spokeswoman, said Tuesday from Seattle. "But if you happen to be going through that lane, you would go through the portal."

TSA first used such portals in 30- to 45-day trials conducted at five U.S. airports over the summer, just a few weeks before Chechen terrorists set off bombs aboard two Russian jets. The bombs detonated after the jets took off from Moscow, killing 85 passengers and crew.

The devices have remained in place at those airports, regardless of their participation in the upcoming model airport tests, Peppin said.

Only nine of the 16 airports named last week will receive explosive trace portals during the test's first phase; four of those nine will also receive X-ray backscatter devices, which use low radiation X-rays to produce an image that clearly shows a person's body and any metal, plastic or organic materials hidden beneath clothing.

"Backscatter will help us find things on a passenger that may be concealed and may not be easily detected by a metal detector," said Peppin, who added the devices could replace hand "pat down" searches for weapons hidden near a person's groin, chest or lower back.

While some have questioned backscatter's potential to violate traveler privacy by displaying lifelike images of their bodies to screeners and passers-by, Peppin said the devices used at airports will reveal only the general shape of those it scans.

TSA in October launched the first public test of backscatter X-ray machines by screening automobiles for explosives at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal in Cape May, N.J.

Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker and Deputy Director Rosemary Vassiliadis were each unavailable for comment Tuesday, but spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez said McCarran leaders are pleased to help TSA conduct its upcoming tests.

"If it will potentially enhance security, we're all for it," Sanchez said.