Putting the air in the airport


I've been puffed.

Like wheat, pastry and egos, my body got a 14-second "puffing" at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday - the first full day of operation for the Sentinel II, the latest in high-tech passenger screening devices.

I emerged unharmed, unfrazzled and comforted by the knowledge that, whatever other cooties might be lurking about my person, bomb dust is not among them.

BWI is one of eight airports in the country testing the walk-through devices, which shoot streams of air at those who enter, suck up the dislodged particles and then examine them for trace amounts of explosives.

It's a 14-second procedure - "non-invasive," the company that makes the Sentinel II points out - used, for now, only on passengers singled out for additional screening. Barring extenuating circumstances, it eliminates the need for more intrusive alternatives such as the wand probe and pat down.

But this is no puff piece.

To the contrary, our purpose was to investigate firsthand the latest entry in the counter-terrorism arsenal and assess how it rates on the constantly growing list of air travel indignities - a list that includes having a stranger rifle through your unmentionables as another stranger waves a wand between your legs as you stand in your socks with your belt unbuckled.

To that end, I purchased a refundable one-way ticket (always a red flag) to Chicago and headed to security at Pier D, the only concourse at BWI with the device.

Immediately, I was waved into the line reserved for those who, for various reasons, merit a little extra scrutiny. At the end was a blue and gray, high-tech-looking box, open at both ends, with 40 air jets positioned along its sides.

"This is the puffer," a security officer explained. "Step in."

I placed my feet on the yellow footprints on the floor of the machine, about the size of a photo booth, and waited.

A brief but powerful series of air blasts followed, buffeting me from head to toe. Imagine a Jacuzzi, minus the water.

After a few seconds, the air assault - not entirely unpleasant - ended. Then the vacuuming - barely even noticeable - began. It pulled all the particles that had been blown off into an intake filter on the floor. In a few more seconds, the analysis was complete and a computerized voice told me I was free to go.

I decided "The Puffer" deserved its happy nickname, far more palatable to the public than "The Blower," "The Sucker," or "Spray N' Vac."

Unfortunately, the Sentinel II is not an all-purpose detection system. I still had to walk shoeless through the metal detector. And I still had to have my briefcase thoroughly searched, at which point I learned that - attention smokers - lighters will not be allowed past security checkpoints as of next week.

Having no real plane to catch, I began looking for other puffed souls. With slightly more than one in 10 passengers getting the extra screening, I was sure I could find some passengers piqued by their puffing.

"It was fine - just a bunch of jets of air from head to toe," said Joe Bentrewicz, 38, of Columbia, who was on a trip with business partners to Augusta, Ga. He added that if he had been in a hurry his perspective might have been different.

"The easiest part of traveling so far has been going through the puffer machine," said Lynn Gaches, 47, of Davidsonville, noting that her first flight had been canceled, requiring a switch of airlines.

Neither felt violated, or even inconvenienced and, overall, the consensus among passengers was a resounding ... no big deal.

Still, my cynicism - unlike dried skin flakes and cat hairs - clung to me.

I wondered if the machine kept track, Big Brother style, of what it did find. Was it spewing out reports in some back room on all who passed through - the sort of information that might end up in one's permanent record:

"Subject is a smoker with two cats, mild eczema and controllable dandruff. Recently consumed, or was in the vicinity of someone consuming, Little Debbie Pecan Spinwheels. Advisory: Though male, subject has been using a female brand moisturizing lotion. Approach with caution."

Just what might the government be gleaning from my aura, or at least that portion of it that can be blown off?

Not a thing, says Mark Laustra, president of Smiths Detection, one of two companies making explosive trace portal machines, or "puff portals."

While the machines are capable of detecting narcotics, they are not set to do so during the Transportation Security Administration trials, and no individualized analysis of results are maintained once a passenger goes through, he said.

Laustra said the machines produce no radiation and cause no harmful effects. "It's just compressed air, that's all you're being subjected to," he said.

His company's machines are now in place at BWI, JFK and the airport in Jacksonville, Fla., and their "deployment" at more airports is expected this spring, according to a company press release. They are also used in nuclear power facilities, he said.

Similar machines made by General Electric are being used at airports in San Diego, Rochester, Providence, Tampa and Gulfport, Miss.

The machines, which must be emptied a couple times a week of the lint, dust, dirt and dried skin that accumulates in their filters, are costly, running about $125,000 each.

That's a lot more than a lint roller or a vacuum cleaner, but it's a small price to pay for safety, most passengers - puffed and non-puffed - agreed.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad