VANCOUVER — Canada’s major airports will have new X-ray scanning gear in place for carry-on baggage by February that officials say could speed up the trip through security and make it easier to spot potential threats.
It also holds the potential of dialling back blanket restrictions on carrying liquids aboard flights, instituted after a foiled British-based plot to bomb jetliners using liquid explosives.
The Canadian Air Transportation Security Authority has given a $27-million contract to UK-based Smiths Detection to replace the company’s current single-view X-ray scanners with units that capture four views of each piece of luggage.
“This additional data that is created contributes to better decisions by our screening officers and obviously an improvement on the security at the checkpoint,” Mathieu Larocque, the security authority’s communications officer, said from Ottawa.
The new system is being installed this year in five major Canadian airports: Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.
Larocque said Canada’s other three so-called Class 1 airports — Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa — will get them in the next fiscal year. There are no plans to upgrade the scanners at smaller regional airports, he said.
Scanners for checked baggage already use the technology, he added.
Vancouver International Airport, which is readying for an influx of travellers for the Winter Olympics in February, recently finished a successful test run.
“We did a pilot in Vancouver with one unit and I believe other units are installed or being installed as we speak,” said Larocque. “The Games played an important role in the pilot.”
Current carry-on luggage scanners provide an image comparable to medical X-ray, Cherif Rizkalla, Smiths’ president of security and inspection, said from Montreal.
The new units will make two views available for the operator but use data from four views of the object. A computer software algorithm automatically identifies threatening objects such as explosives and frames them in red on the screen.
Rizkalla said the system identifies based on the number of protons in each atom that’s unique to every substance.
The system is more accurate than current scanners, which should reduce delays from the number of bags that have to be run through more than once or pulled aside for a hand search, Rizkalla said.
“It gives more tools to the operator to essentially make a quicker, more accurate decision, and that will help throughput,” he said.
Larocque was more cautious about whether it would speed up the screening process.
“We’re not quite sure yet but it has definitely the potential,” he said. “Because screening officers will see the object at different angles they will be able to make better decisions which may indeed lead to more efficient and faster screening.”
Rizkalla said the software can be updated to detect new threats as they emerge.
Prior to the 9-11 terror attacks, there had been little change in the kinds of threats being addressed, he said. Since then, security screenings have dealt with things like shoe-borne and liquid explosives.
The system has the capability to detect liquid explosives but Larocque said it isn’t being actively used yet.
“We’re not using it in the deployment right now because we’re still testing it,” he said. “Any decisions on the regulations will not come from CATSA. It has to come from the regulator, Transport Canada.”
Larocque stressed that any decision to ease restrictions on liquids in carry-on luggage would only come if there’s a consensus with the security authority’s counterparts in the United States and the European Community, where the equipment is also in use now.