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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Airport security continues to evolve since 9/11, and it's possible that within the next decade or so, passengers will be able to sail through a virtually invisible screening portal without stopping.

  • That means shoes stay on, electronics stay in the bag and pockets don't have to be emptied.

Why it matters: Everyone wants to avoid another terrorist attack like the one that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001. But the security measures put in place since then — while mostly effective — have also made air travel more inconvenient and frustrating.

  • These new advances, if they work, have the potential to relieve a lot of those frustrations — while still keeping travelers safe.

Flashback: The intrusive airport screening methods we've come to live with didn't happen all at once.

  • TSA started scanning all checked bags in December 2002, but it wasn't until August 2006 that passengers were required to remove their shoes. A month later, TSA limited liquids in carry-on bags to 3.4 ounces or less.
  • The first full body scanners appeared in 2010, and TSA PreCheck for trusted travelers was introduced in 2011.
  • In July 2018, TSA started testing CT scanners to give officers a 3D view of what's inside carry-on bags.

Where it stands: With 430 airports nationwide, it will be years before TSA can install these 3D baggage scanners and full body imaging tech at every checkpoint, a TSA spokesman told Axios.

  • Meanwhile, its innovation task force is working closely with industry and government researchers to evaluate new technologies that enhance security and improve the customer experience.
  • For example, TSA is testing kiosks equipped with facial-recognition technology to check photo IDs and boarding passes, AP reports, though critics say such systems too often make mistakes.

What's happening: Some new technologies are already close to deployment.

  • New shoe scanning technology and enhanced, high-definition body scanners will begin deployment at airports starting in a few years.
  • These enhanced imaging systems will make it easier for TSA to identify threats while cutting down on false alarms requiring pat-downs or other secondary screening.
  • Both systems were developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and licensed to a security company called Liberty Defense.
  • Other PNNL technologies can differentiate powders from liquids in baggage or replace bomb-sniffing dogs at security checkpoints.

What's next: Better imaging technology, along with artificial intelligence and machine learning, could lead to self-screening systems or contactless security portals for low-risk travelers.

  • Several companies, including Evolv Technologies and Liberty Defense, have developed walk-through screening systems for a variety of venues.
  • Aviation security experts expect these technologies to be deployed in airports in 10 or 15 years, perhaps sooner.

How it works: Liberty's Hexwave system, for instance, can screen up to 1,000 people per hour.

  • Passengers walk between two panels that use millimeter wave technology to capture a reflection of their body.
  • AI analyzes the data at a rate of 14 frames per second to provide automated decisions in real time — green or red for "go" or "no go" — to security operators.
  • It can detect both metallic and non-metallic objects like 3D printed guns, and plastic or liquid explosives, CEO Bill Frain tells Axios.

My thought bubble: It reminds me of this scene from Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2012 film, "Total Recall."

The bottom line: The challenge for airports and TSA officials is to balance the need for enhanced security with consumers' desire for a pleasant and seamless travel experience.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that the shoe scanning technology will be deployed starting in a few years, not in late 2022.

Go deeper

Hope King, author of Closer
Nov 24, 2021 - Economy & Business

Charted: The return of holiday travel

Expand chart
Data: TSA; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Air travel is closing in on pre-pandemic levels.

  • What to watch: The total number of people traveling for Thanksgiving this year — by car, bus, train or plane — could reach 53 million, according to AAA, or 95% of 2019 levels.
Updated 8 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring hazards ranging from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow, to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.

Updated 9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Contact tracing fizzles across America — New clues emerge on long COVID — Omicron is finally burning out — It's very difficult to get access to antiviral COVID treatments — Axios-Ipsos poll: Omicron's big numbersAnother wave of death — FDA limits use of Regeneron and Lilly antibody treatments.
  2. Vaccines: Pfizer begins clinical trial for Omicron-specific vaccine — The shifting definition of fully vaccinated.
  3. Politics: Virginia AG says public colleges can't mandate COVID vaccines —Alaska governor joins Texas lawsuit over National Guard vaccine mandate — Navy discharges 45 sailors for refusing vaccine — Spotify to remove Neil Young's music after his Joe Rogan ultimatum — White House: 60M households have ordered free COVID-19 rapid tests.
  4. World: U.K. to lift travel testing requirement for fully vaccinated — Beijing Olympic Committee lowers testing threshold ahead of Games.
  5. Variant tracker