At a terminal being renovated at Dallas Love Field, contractors are installing 500 high-definition security cameras sharp enough to read an auto license plate or a logo on a shirt.
The cameras, capable of tracking passengers from the parking garage to gates to the tarmac, are a key first step in creating what the airline industry would like to see at airports worldwide: a security apparatus that would scrutinize passengers more thoroughly, but less intrusively, and in faster fashion than now.
It's part of what the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, which represents airlines globally, calls "the checkpoint of the future."
The goal is for fliers to move almost non-stop through security from the curb to the gate, in contrast to repeated security stops and logjams at checkpoints.
After checking their luggage, passengers would identify themselves not with driver's licenses and paper boarding passes, but by scanning fingerprints or irises to prove they have an electronic ticket.
Passengers would walk with their carry-ons through a screening tunnel, where they'd undergo electronic scrutiny — replacing what now happens at as many as three different stops as they're scanned for metal objects, non-metallic items and explosives.
Passengers would no longer have to empty carry-ons of liquids and laptops before putting them on conveyor belts for X-ray scans. They could keep their belts and shoes on. They could avoid a backlog at full-body scanners and a finger swab for explosive residue.
If screeners notice anything suspicious, a passenger would still be pulled aside and possibly patted down. But otherwise, passengers are supposed to reach their gates faster. And machines that accomplish each part of this transformation already exist or are in development.
The changing technology, combined with new screening tactics and changes at airports like the ones under construction at Love Field, could make the checkpoint of the future a reality in a decade, the airlines say.
"This isn't really science fiction that we're talking about," says Ken Dunlap, IATA's global director of security.
Need to Speed Security
The push for faster security is prompted by necessity.
The Federal Aviation Administration projects the number of passengers flying inside the USA will nearly double in the next 20 years, to 1.2 billion. Security has slowed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Before then, about 350 people passed through checkpoints each hour, the IATA says. A November survey at 142 airports found processing times fell to 149 an hour, with the worst at 60, Dunlap says.
"All of this confirms downward trends that we've been seeing since 2005, that show, regardless of the market, regardless of the region, the processing numbers are going down," Dunlap says.
The key to speeding up checkpoints and making security less intrusive will be to identify and assess travelers according to the risks they pose to safety in the skies. The so-called riskiest or unknown passengers would face the toughest scrutiny, including questioning and more sensitive electronic screening. Those who voluntarily provide more information about themselves to the government would be rewarded with faster passage.
"It's not a single piece of technology, a single system," says John Halinski, the Transportation Security Administration's assistant administrator for global strategies. "There is no silver bullet."
But being known to the government is the closest to one, and the TSA already is experimenting with it. Its PreCheck program is designed to give expedited screening to travelers who tell TSA about themselves as frequent fliers at specific airlines. One million passengers have participated since it began testing in October 2011. TSA plans to expand it to 35 airports this year.
For $100, Customs and Border Protection has a similar program for foreign travelers called Global Entry, which also qualifies fliers for PreCheck.
The airlines say they could eliminate paper from ticketing if passengers provided information as they do for PreCheck, by linking an electronic ticket to a person's fingerprint or iris scan.
Iris scans, which measure the colored part of the eye, are gaining visibility worldwide. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam began the Privium program in October 2001. It offers fliers with European passports a border passage of 10 to 15 seconds with iris scans.
In the USA, about 200,000 fliers have enrolled in the CLEAR program for expedited screening in Denver, Orlando and San Francisco since November 2010. Members, who answer TSA questions and provide either a fingerprint or iris scan, pay $179 a year to breeze past ID kiosks with a special card.
Caryn Seidman-Becker, CLEAR's chief executive, says the program brings "much-needed speed and predictability" to traveling.
SRI International of Menlo Park, Calif., developed two kinds of iris scanners for airports. One is a turnstile called N-Glance and the other is a portal called PassPort, which looks like a metal detector.
"Instead of using a card or a pass, you would simply glance at a spot on the turnstile and it would open the gate if you were qualified to go through," Mark Clifton, vice president of products and services, says of the prospects for airline passengers. "It's very fast."
Screening could also speed up. Peter Kant, executive vice president of Rapiscan, which makes full-body scanners, says several companies are developing machines fashioned like tunnels that allow travelers to walk through.
Rapiscan has a prototype that would let people keep moving, although it can't scan carry-on bags at the same time yet, Kant says.
"It's out of the lab, but it's still a prototype. It allows people to walk through without stopping or posing," Kant says. "You wouldn't have to be there doing all this unpacking and repacking."
As equipment is developed, the checkpoint ideally would require three tunnels for passengers. Each would be based on the potential threat that a passenger represents. Travelers who provide information like PreCheck would receive the least scrutiny. Unknown passengers or those with liquids would face the most sensitive tunnel.
Dunlap of IATA says initial studies show that breaking down lines into different security risks in programs such as PreCheck already speeds the lines 30%. Having three tunnels should speed the process more, he says. Passengers would be diverted for secondary screening, such as swabbing for explosives residue or pausing for a full-body screening, Dunlap says.
Security analysts acknowledge that checkpoints with three security tunnels could be confusing. Dunlap of IATA says passengers typically take two or three visits to become familiar with a new security routine such as taking off shoes. So, it could take leisure travelers three years to adapt to the changes because they travel less frequently.
Two other hurdles to widespread use: extra costs to passengers and the additional airport space needed to set up the machines.
"To do it right, what you'd want to do is bring somebody in, get all their biographic information, get their biometric information, and run them through a couple of databases to make sure they're not a bad guy," says James Albers, senior vice president at MorphoTrust USA, which developed software for iris scans. "Do they travel enough to make that worthwhile or cost-effective?"
Kant of Rapiscan says another challenge is how to pull aside a suspicious character if a group of people is moving through the tunnel.
Tight space at airports could pose a problem. "It's about the size of a three-car garage," Kant says of the tunnels.
Hints of the Future Now
What's going on at Love Field represents the changes that need to occur to attain the faster and secure checkpoints of the future. It's undergoing a $519 million renovation because it's projected to triple its passenger load to 12 million a year within four years, according to Karl Martin, senior information technology manger.
The project is increasing the space for security checkpoints, with room for new checkpoint tunnels as they are developed, Martin says. "It is quite a transformation," he says.
As the walk shortens from parking to the airport's 20 renovated gates, security officials need to better gauge the potential risk that each passenger poses. The project includes about $6 million for high-def cameras from Avigilon, which are already in place at Boston's Logan and Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz airports.
The difference between previous cameras and new ones, with up to 16 megapixels, is similar to comparing a 1970s rerun with the crispness of a high-def sports telecast.
"You're able to actually cover a wider area and zoom into an area to see a face, read a license plate or read a tail number on a plane," says Bryan Schmode, executive vice president of global sales at Avigilon.
The focus is clear enough from a camera above the Southwest checkpoint to pinpoint the red-and-white JetSuite logo on the polo shirt of a man in line on a recent Thursday.
Another advantage is the ability to send the video to smartphones or tablets. By spring, Martin says, Love Field's police officers or airport workers will get the video of a suspicious person on a hand-held device rather than having to race back to a central monitor to see what happened.
"It begins to make all this information real time," Martin says.
Security officials are reluctant to describe what sorts of behavior would trigger a response. But Chris Cole, Love's security manager, says the cameras could help with something as simple — and potentially dangerous — as finding the driver of an unattended car in front of the terminal.
"Now I can start tracing where that person went," Cole says.