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Airports seek bomb-detection options

From Kathleen Koch
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The case of Richard Reid, accused of carrying explosive material in his shoes aboard a trans-Atlantic flight, has raised questions about what more can be done to detect explosives on airline passengers.

Random X-rays of airline passengers' shoes are the aviation industry's first response to the new threat that passengers could be carrying explosives not in luggage, but on their bodies.

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But other technology to detect explosives on passengers is still in the testing phase.

One controversial method is an electronic strip search called body scanning. It uses low-intensity X-rays to see through clothing and is now used at major airports by the U.S. Customs Service to search potential smugglers.

Another technology involves walk-through detectors that puff air onto a passenger and can dislodge trace amounts of explosives, trapping them for a chemical analysis. Developers say it is 99 percent accurate.

"I think that the nature of the technology that's used in these machines is such that it would be extremely difficult to sort of get around it," said Brook Miller, vice president of Barringer Instruments.

For now, the Federal Aviation Administration says it has 180 bomb-sniffing dogs deployed at 39 airports that can check passengers, along with hand-held detection units now used to scan luggage.

But there's concern those assets will be needed more elsewhere, screening checked luggage for explosives.

The Aviation Security Act requires that, but doesn't mandate that passengers themselves be better screened for bombs.

"It is still a piecemeal approach, in my view," security expert Larry Johnson said. "You have to have this comprehensive design from the ground up -- standard procedures across the board -- no assumptions. We are going to be a couple of years getting there."

Until then, Israeli aviation expert Lior Zuker says, passengers flagged by the current prescreening system should be more carefully searched.

"No hidden place -- not in his belongings, not in his body, not on his shoes -- should be there and not disclosed or found out," Zuker said.

But passengers have already complained about intrusive pat-downs, so airlines will have to address the new threat with what they have on hand, perhaps leaving travelers vulnerable until new technology is ready.




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