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Jennifer Robison

McCarran security scans won't be for the bashful

11 June 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- So how tight is security at America's airports these days?

Pretty darned tight, if you ask Alabamian Stan Tew.

"Soon, we'll all be wearing Speedos and thongs, with terry-cloth robes, opening up and doing a flash as we go through (checkpoints)," said Tew, as he sat inside The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace Tuesday.

But the nation's Transportation Security Administration is one step -- or actually, a lot of steps -- ahead of Tew.

The agency is rolling out body-scanning machines that generate revealing images of people underneath their clothes. The idea: to read whether a traveler is toting contraband or dangerous items banned on airplanes. One of the $180,000 devices is headed for McCarran International Airport, where it'll take up residence at the security checkpoints under construction for the airport's C gates, said Dwayne Baird, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration. The checkpoints are scheduled to open in August.

Showed samples of the images Tuesday, tourists at Caesars Palace expressed mixed feelings on the technology. Almost all said the technology wouldn't deter them from future trips here, though some had serious reservations about the explicit nature of the machines' images.

"That's disgusting looking," said Alma Castellanos, a visitor from Lincoln, Calif. "That's hideous. I don't approve of that at all. If they had those at the airport, I think I'd detour myself somewhere else. I'd go out of my way to avoid that."

But Tina and Lee Kirby, a husband and wife from Bournemouth, England, liked the pending security measure.

"It doesn't bother me at all," said Tina Kirby, who married her husband in Las Vegas 14 years ago and visits the Strip with him at least twice a year. "Anything to heighten security and make it safer is better. I wouldn't have any issue with it at all."

Security officials initially plan to use the scanners as an additional layer of security, rather than as a substitute for current screening.

After passengers have cleared metal detectors, those selected for further screening will be directed to the device, according to a USA Today description of the process from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where two of the devices are in use.

Once inside, subjects raise their arms and the device uses "millimeter waves" to peer through clothing to detect whether the passenger is concealing suspected contraband.

A TSA worker in a separate room looks at black-and-white images from the device, which will be shaded differently from passengers' bodies.

If the worker suspects an illicit item, he or she uses a radio to notify a worker at the checkpoint to search the passenger.

A TSA spokesman at Baltimore-Washington said the imaging process could eventually replace traditional metal detectors and pat-down searches, which could save time by making security screening more efficient, USA Today said.

Las Vegas tourists were likelier to embrace the machines if the devices were to displace metal detectors altogether.

Lee Kirby wears boots with steel in the soles, and his mother-in-law has artificial hips, he said. Security hiccups regularly detain him and his family, so he said he'd gladly submit to the scans if they allowed him to forgo the hassle of multiple trips through metal detectors and time-consuming pat-downs.

Kara and Tom Untied, visitors from Florida, recalled one airport encounter that saw their daughter singled out at a security checkpoint for extensive screening.

"She was standing there with her arms out, and she had tears in her eyes," Kara Untied said. "She was horrified. I would much rather do this (body-scanning). It would save time in the long run, because they'll be able to see everybody, and there won't be the hassle of waiting for everybody to empty their pockets."

Tom Untied added that he's seen airport security staffers send flyers through metal detectors four and five times after inconclusive tests, and he'd welcome the new scanners "if they cut all that out."

Saving time is important at McCarran because the airport could reach capacity of 53 million passengers per year before 2018, the earliest a new airport could be operational.

That has Clark County Department of Aviation officials working to maximize McCarran's efficiency. The area where the body scanner is to be installed will be home to 12 new security lanes for passengers heading into the C gates. In addition to providing C gate passengers more direct access from the ticket counters to their gates, the new checkpoints will free up more space for D gate passengers at the existing C and D gate checkpoints. The new capacity there will come in handy because airport workers are also in the process of adding nine new D gates.

Even with domestic airlines cutting back, Clark County Director of Aviation Randall Walker says the need to stretch facilities at McCarran remains.

In a recent interview, Walker said cutbacks are likely to be temporary, like the economic slumps Las Vegas endured in the 1980s, late 1990s and in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As the economy rebounds, McCarran will need to remain as efficient as possible to keep up with demand until the proposed new airport is ready.

Officials at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority didn't comment by press time on whether they were concerned the machines might turn off visitors to the city. But anecdotal evidence shows the scanners won't translate into fewer visitors coming through McCarran.

Stephen Grosso, a Utah resident who visits his mother-in-law here two to three times a year, said he considers airport screening in general an invasion of his privacy, and he only submits to it when forced. Still, the new devices won't affect whether he flies.

"If they really felt it was justified for security, I don't have a personal problem with it," Grosso said.

Stan Tew's friend, an Alabama resident who wouldn't give his name, said the machines would hurt McCarran's traffic if McCarran were the only airport deploying the devices. With other airports using the machines, though, McCarran will probably suffer less fallout. He also said he suspects the scanning technology will encourage more Americans to sign up for programs such as the TSA's registered-traveler program, which lets flyers who get background checks and pay $100 a year avoid some of the heavier screening of conventional checkpoints.

Tew himself will settle for the standard route through security, and he'll surrender to the body scanner if asked.

"It doesn't bother me," he said, "but I'm a show-off."