CT Scanners Could End the Liquid Ban, And They’re Coming to Phoenix This Year


Not one to sit on the sideline while Delta invests in security technology, American has announced it’s doing some investing of its own. American will be installing the same security lanes Delta put in Atlanta at its own hubs in LA, Miami, Chicago, and Dallas/Ft Worth. That was news when Delta announced it, but not so much now. What’s interesting in this announcement is that American is going to buy some CT scanners to test out in Phoenix later this year. This could (fingers crossed) mean the end of the annoying liquid ban.

Let’s walk this back a little bit, because I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s highly unlikely this is going to end the liquid ban anytime soon. But it should, if it works as advertised. At the very least, it should allow people to keep their liquids and laptops in their bags even in non-Pre Check lines. (That, by the way, might be bad since it would erase one of the incentives people have to sign up for Pre Check in the first place, but let’s pretend this will all work for the best.)

CT Scan Carry On Bag

I know your first question… is this CT scan the same thing you had done in the hospital that one time? Yep. It’s the same technology. And in fact, it’s already used in baggage rooms below the wing. Checked bags are scanned quickly and efficiently using this technology every day.

Now, American has decided to buy this technology so the TSA can test it above the wing in the passenger screening lines. Machines have become smaller, cheaper, faster, and within the realm of reality to be used in a screening checkpoint. American and the TSA will begin this test in Phoenix later this year.

I spoke to Mark Namaroff, Director of Investor Relations for Analogic, a company that produces many of those machines to scan checked bags today. It also produces machines for checkpoints. It has one running in London/Luton now, and it recently wrapped up a test in Amsterdam. It’s one of the companies that is expected to be considered to make the equipment for this test. (American has yet to decide on a provider.)

I wanted to get more info on this technology. CT stands for computed tomography. Effectively, these machines take a bunch of x-rays and then build a cross-section of the object being scanned. It’s much richer than a traditional x-ray, and software has been built that allows computers to automatically scan for threats to aircraft so screeners don’t have to analyze each bag.

In a perfect world, this is how it’ll work. You’ll stroll up to the checkpoint like you do today, but you won’t have to pull out a laptop, your liquids, or anything else. You’ll put your bag on the belt and it’ll run straight through. There’s no starting and stopping if all is clear. The bags go through, the scans are analyzed by the computer, and then cleared bags are spit out the other side. Only bags that are flagged will need to be pulled out for inspection. Here’s a video from the Analogic website.

The company says its newest machine can clear up to 600 passengers per hour, assuming TSA does in fact allow liquids and laptops to be kept in the bag. I found one study from DFW showing that it had been able to improve throughput to 240 people per lane per hour in 2005, so this sounds like a big step forward if it holds true.

Why can this allow liquids and laptops to be left inside your bags? Well a CT scan gives a much richer and more detailed picture of what’s inside. It also can measure density of various objects. It’s that last piece that gives me hope that eventually this machine could allow the liquid ban to be lifted. If the density of water versus something more sinister can be measured, then there’s hope.

I realize this is all just a pipe dream right now. I’m guessing TSA has wanted to test this for some time but it didn’t have the funds to get the equipment. (According to Analogic, the machines are more expensive than what’s used today but with higher throughput, the cost per passenger is reasonable.) Now American is stepping up to try it out. If you’re flying American in Phoenix sometime around the end of this year, your bag might get to be a guinea pig.

[Original CT machine photo and luggage photo via Shutterstock]

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

14 comments on “CT Scanners Could End the Liquid Ban, And They’re Coming to Phoenix This Year

      1. Never underestimate the power and lobbying $$$ of the military-industrial//security-industrial complex.

        “Papers, please!”

  1. Do “they” hate us for our “freedom” to walk on a plane with toothpaste unmolested by our government? Do “they” hate us for our way of life and technology, such as being able to invent and produce low cost CT machines? Or do “they” hate us for bombing, droning, regime changing, and otherwise interjecting ourselves into their lives with guns? Maybe if we didn’t waste resources bombing we wouldn’t need to waste resources making us “safer” from the reaction to those bombs. CT machines for medically helping poor ‘muricans rather than drones for Anwar al Awlaki’s16 year old innocent American citizen son.

    1. THEY hate us because WE are NOT MUSLIM…….very simple.
      AND they will hate us FOREVER.
      Interesting book to read about this on your next trip – “It IS about Islam”.
      A real eye opener!

  2. If it gets people through faster, TSA will just do cut backs so there will be less lanes needed so pre-check will still get used as a way for people to pay to get through faster.

  3. Reactionary vs Visionary.
    Surely if we can get men to the moon in under a decade we can be as clever with this issue and other issues, By using what America does best; unrestriced, creative, thinking, to help all people of this world.

  4. So then explosive liquids easily distinguished from all of the varieties of drinks, body products and other innocuous solutions people carry around? I know there’s more to it than just density, and I’d like to know more about the science.

    1. I wouldn’t say “easily” but, yes the technology can distinguish explosives because it determines both a material’s density and its effective atomic number through attenuation measurements.

      1. Now we can move into the realm of x-ray fluorescence and EDXS…but man those bags will take a big dose. Don’t forget to take fluffy out!

        What ever happened to thermal neutron activation for detection of suspect elements in checked bags?

  5. If tsa would get it’s act together and gain some efficiency there would be no need to have to pay in order to hopefully get through faster. All of these scanners etc just serve to increase the cost of travel with very little if any actual benefit to travelers or the airlines

  6. The TSA doesn’t enforce the rule that you need to take your liquids out of your bag.

    source: thousands of trips through a non precheck lane

    1. And it has been like that since at least 2009, if not earlier.

      Talk to a consultant or someone who travels every week, and even if they don’t have precheck, few of them bother pull out their liquids out of their suitcases. Anecdotally, the chances of getting “caught” (or having someone notice your liquids and care) seem to be ~10-20% or less, and the delay from getting “caught” is usually very short.

      In my (again, anecdotal) experience, the smaller airports tend to be a bit more overstaffed or underworked, and/or have nothing better to do, and thus seem to enforce the liquids rule a bit more aggressively.

      1. Just to follow up to this, I was flying recently and one of my bags was getting the hairy eye from the TSA person on the X-ray. I offered to take my liquids out, but was told, “No, it’s not those, we don’t care about them.”

        Turns out that a few pieces of brass in a baggie together (collar stays) are more dangerous (or at least appear so on the X-ray machine) than liquids. Go figure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier