Airport security screening serves two key purposes: To protect the airport and passengers from threatening events and to reassure the traveling public that they are safe. Airport screening has a long and complicated history in the United States. Since 9/11, five attempted terrorist attacks on U.S. airliners and airports have made airport security a continued priority. Shortly after the 2001 attacks, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and put  federal employees in charge of airport security screening. Since then, billions have been spent on improving pubic safety and security including explosive and narcotics detection.

Explosive trace detection remains a key area of focus for airport screening. “Explosive Trace Detection technology is a critical tool in our ability to stay ahead of evolving threats to aviation security,” said former TSA  Acting Administrator Gale Rossides. “Expanding the use of this technology at checkpoints and at departure gates greatly enhances security to keep the traveling public safe.”  As recently as February, DHS alerted airlines flying to the United States of the possibility that terrorists might try to bring explosives on board in their shoes. Although hiding explosives in shoes is not new, passengers aboard an American Airlines flight in 2001 prevented a U.K. citizen from detonating explosives hidden in his sneakers, it remains a valid potential threat. 

Explosives Trace Detection technology is used at security checkpoints around the country to screen baggage and passengers for traces of explosives. Until 2010, screening consisted primarily of checked baggage but a decision by the TSA expanded the use of random ETD screening focusing on passenger’s hands. The procedure (which I discussed here) is preformed by swabbing the least handled area of a piece of carry-on lugagge or a passenger’s hands and placing the swab inside the ETD unit to analyze it for the presence of potential explosive residue.  The equipment used by the TSA to analyze hand and luggage swabs are capable of detecting explosive residues as tiny as a nanogram (billionth of a gram). This means a bomb maker could wash incessantly and even dry-clean their clothes and still ETD equipment can catch them. 

Trace Detection is a highly effective, proven technology that helps to prevent one of the biggest threats facing aviation security today, improvised explosive devices. The TSA makes use of ETD screening equipment at every checkpoint across the country and as long as the threat of an explosives based attack remains, trace detection will continue to have a place in airport security.   Explosive trace detection of individuals and luggage remains the most consistent and effective approach we have towards preventing future attacks and protecting the public and infrastructure of the air travel industry.