Planning a trip through Atlantic City International Airport? Prepare to see something still uncommon in airports: podlike security portals separating deplaning passengers from baggage claim.
The futuristic-looking “pods,” as they’ve been nicknamed by staff, draw more than a few strange looks from passengers. At times, the see-through, bubblelike portals even inspire a few four-letter words from confused travelers in a hurry to get to baggage claim.
What many don’t realize is that the airport in Egg Harbor Township was the first in the country to test this equipment and is now one of the few to use it. This comes from a cooperative research and development agreement among the South Jersey Transportation Authority, or SJTA, which operates the airport; the federal Transportation Security Administration, or TSA; and the federal Transportation Security Lab, which is based nearby at the William J. Hughes Technical Center.
The agreement was a first for those entities five years ago and allows for equipment to be tested in real-life settings. No money is involved, but the agreement is beneficial to all parties, officials say, as it allows for more realistic testing of the latest and greatest concepts. Meanwhile, Atlantic City International often gets to be the first to use the new technology and can negotiate to keep equipment it tests with proper approvals.
“It’s truly ‘Star Wars’ kind of technology that’s being tested here sometimes,” SJTA spokesman Kevin Rehmann said. “Unfortunately, there’s a certain segment of the population that wants to kill us, and the technology that’s tested here is what helps keep us safe.”
The arrangement expires in August, and officials are considering extending it. If it is extended, it could likely include the involvement of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is working on an agreement to take over airport operations in July. It’s still unclear how that relationship might affect any new agreement, but Port Authority officials have said that one of the things that makes the airport attractive is its proximity to the tech center.
A new agreement would have to be approved by the TSA. Federal Security Director Tom Coury then approves which equipment can be tested at the airport.
“We’re in a unique position here. The role of the laboratory is to test all security equipment that may have some opportunity to be of service in our airports. In Atlantic City, it gives us the opportunity to test the latest and the most developed security,” Coury said.
To date, the testing has brought officials from several other airports to Atlantic City to see equipment in action. The security portals have sparked interest from airports in Syracuse and Rochester, New York, and Dallas-Fort Worth, Rehmann said.
The pods separate secure areas from unsecure ones and ensure that no one who exits can return to the secure area. In other airports, security guards control that task. But that staff costs money, and human error can still occur. A security breach at Newark Liberty International Airport last year caused hours of delays and a terminal lockdown when a passenger got through a checkpoint without full screening.
Atlantic City’s setup allows for an estimated savings of $300,000 a year because guards are no longer necessary. Passengers approach the pods, which have slowly revolving doors. The machine then scans everything and everyone inside. Seconds later, a door facing baggage claim opens. Everyone and everything in the portal must exit. Otherwise, the portal will not reopen.
As acting SJTA Executive Director Sam Donelson demonstrated recently, the portals are able to pick up materials as small as a coin. On a walk through the airport with a reporter, he left a quarter in the portal to test its effectiveness. As designed, the portal would not reopen to the secured area until the quarter was removed.
While airport staff who are aware of the technology and what it represents think it’s neat, passengers can be left confused. That will likely continue until the portals become more commonplace. Despite videos at the portals showing people how to use them, even after lines build up, people often enter the portals one at a time rather than taking several people as designed.
“You can watch a dozen people cram into an elevator anywhere, and that’s normal. But people see the pods, and, for whatever reason, everyone thinks it’s one at a time,” Rehmann said.
Still, the portals remain one of the more successful projects tested at the airport. There has been equipment that has not worked out quite as well. An earlier attempt to separate secure areas from unsecured ones came in the form of sliding glass doors. The doors were supposed to detect anyone who passed through and then tried to travel back. In theory, the doors would have shut and created a barrier until security arrived.
But that didn’t happen. As SJTA officials soon found, they could roll objects such as small balls back through the doors without any problem. As the doors were tested, security personnel remained to prevent any actual security breaches.
“Those doors failed everything, every test there was. That happens sometimes,” Rehmann said.
There have been other examples. About four years ago, the SJTA tested equipment in the Atlantic City-Brigantine tunnel that was supposed to alert officials by either email or text message if smoke was detected from an accident. It turned out, however, that the product didn’t work on all cell phone carriers.
At the moment, no other equipment is being tested at the airport. What could be next, however, is some sort of biometric testing that would allow for iris screenings or fingerprint screenings as a means of identification. That type of equipment could ensure that only airport employees enter certain areas. Key cards are currently used at Atlantic City International, but this technology would be even stronger, Rehmann said.
Coury said the applications for that kind of equipment hadn’t been narrowed down yet.
“The airport is interested in using some type of biometric application. We don’t know exactly what that application would be, but there is interest,” Coury said.
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