“Puffer” Bomb Screeners Offer Questionable Effectiveness
Three years ago, federal officials unveiled the “puff portal,” a machine designed to detect explosives at airport checkpoints with unprecedented precision. When a passenger stepped inside the puff portal, the machine was said to send sharp bursts of air to dislodge particles from the body, hair and clothing, and analyze them for microscopic traces of explosives.
But the expensive devices — each costs about $160,000 — have been largely ineffectual and the much ballyhooed $30 million program is facing tough scrutiny from critics.
Less than 25 percent of an anticipated 434 devices have been deployed nationwide, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which listed the cause as “performance and maintenance issues.”
No new machines have been deployed since last year, according to the Seattle Times, and, despite ongoing review and repairs, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration acknowledges it still has not fixed the problems and cannot say when or if the program will be restarted.
“TSA continues to work with the manufacturer on improving maintenance elements of first-generation units,” says Christopher White, a TSA spokesman, about the program’s status. “A timeline has not been established for deploying additional trace portals.”
A total of 95 units have been deployed to 38 airports, according to White, who said the $30 million cost includes the initial pilot program and purchase, installation and maintenance for the puff portals.
Airports where puff portals are deployed include New York’s JFK, Newark Liberty, Boston Logan International, Los Angeles International, Miami International and San Francisco International.
In its recent report, the GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, determined “limited progress has been made in fielding explosives detection technology at passenger screening checkpoints.”
“Due to performance and maintenance issues, TSA halted the acquisition and deployment of the [puff] portals in June 2006, and the acquisition of additional portals is contingent on resolution of these issues,” says the GAO report.