Tampa airport gets its first CT scanner for carry-on bags

Similar scanners already check every checked bag at the airport for explosives and other banned items.
Published May 20

TAMPA — If you're heading out of town on a Southwest flight and see your carry-on bag go into a scanner that looks like something you would lie down on to get a brain scan, well, it's no coincidence.

The federal Transportation Security Administration on Monday showed off its first advanced computed tomography, or CT, checkpoint scanner at Tampa International Airport. Like a CT scanner that checks people for tumors — and like the same sort of scanners that have already looked inside every checked bag at the airport for more than a decade — Airside C's new scanner for carry-ons creates a three-dimensional image of what's inside the bag that can be rotated and looked at from every direction. For security officers looking for explosives, the difference is like going from a map to a globe, Transportation Security Administration spokesman Mark Howell said.

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"It's a CT machine, basically like what you would see in a hospital," he said. "It's just tailored for use in airport security screening." For example, he said, think about a carry-on bag containing a laptop, a plastic bag full of cords and a jar of peanut butter.

"All three of those things together on a flat X-ray image are going to look a little suspect, and we're obviously going to have to do the bag search to clear it," Howell said. A CT scanner makes it easier to sort out what's what. Similarly, some guns, viewed from a particular angle, "can look like a Pez dispenser on the flat image, but if you turn it, it's a gun," he said.

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The new scanners cost more than a million dollars each, and so far are in use at security screening checkpoints at about a dozen airports around the country. So far, only one of the 27 security lanes at Tampa International Airport has one of the scanners, but federal officials hope to bring in a few more over the next year. A nationwide phase-in is likely to take closer to a decade. Security lanes that have a CT scanner can allow passengers to leave their electronics in their bags and, eventually, their liquids. (You'll still have to take your shoes off, though.)

"We're getting increased detection ability," Howell said, "and passengers are going to have less things to take out of their bag, which is going to speed the process up for everybody."

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Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times