Puffer machine, RIP

Published 27 May 2009

The puffer machines were once thought of as a good solution for airport security: passengers would walk through a portal in which a blast of air would dislodge particles off their clothes and bodies to detect traces of explosives; things have not worked out, and TSA pulls the plug on the futuristic device

Slightly more than a year ago we wrote about security gaps at U.S. airports. We offered these comments about a machine that was supposed to close these gaps, the “puffer”:

TSA officials also rushed to purchase scores of explosive trace portal machines, known as “puffers” because they blast air on passengers and then analyze particles dislodged from passengers’ clothes or skin for hints or traces of a bomb. The agency bought 200 of the machines from General Electric and Smiths Detection, a unit of Smiths Group of Britain, and planned to install them at scores of airports. By mid-2006, however, TSA officials had found that that the machines could not be deployed in main security lines because they took too long to screen passengers, and they often broke or were unreliable because they could not withstand the dust, grime, and jet-fuel fumes in airports (we are told there was another reason: The powerful puffs of air used to dislodge particles off passengers’ clothes created cloud of particles which would often contaminate other passengers, thus increasing the list of suspects requiring additional examination). Annual maintenance costs soared to as much as $48,000 for each device. The TSA has relegated 109 of the devices to a Texas warehouse, where they are to remain until officials and vendors come up with ways to make them operate more efficiently (8 February 2008 HS Daily Wire).

It appears that the short and unhappy life of the puffer machine has now come to an end. TSA has determined that the machine, officially known as Explosive Trace Portals (ETPs) — and, more generally, trace portals — do not meet the requirements for operational suitability due to frequent maintenance issues. TSA also determined that more reliable and effective screening technologies have become available since ETPs were first introduced. For these reasons, TSA has decided to phase out this technology.

Blogger Paul writes that ETPs were first deployed to airports in a pilot capacity in June 2004. At the program’s peak, 94 of the 207 units originally procured by TSA were deployed to 37 airports. Over the years, TSA gathered performance data on several variations of the technology.

As the ETP pilot progressed, it became increasingly apparent that tweaks and fixes were unable to resolve ETP maintenance issues caused by dirt and humidity common to any airport environment. In the summer of 2008 TSA made the decision to begin phasing out ETP technology.

Blogger Paul notes that TSA spent approximately $29.6 million on explosive trace portals. Of this, approximately $6.2 million was spent on maintenance on the 94 deployed units. Currently, there are 33 ETPs deployed to 15 airports. ETPs that are still in use at airports continue to support a dynamic layered screening approach.

Note that earlier this year TSA opened a new testing facility called the TSA Systems Integration Facility (TSIF). At this facility TSA tests different security screening technologies in simulated airport environments. This facility will allow TSA more effectively to measure operational suitability prior to deployment.