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Air passengers face new explosives test

Get ready for the bomb swab.

The Transportation Security Administration announced Wednesday that passengers at Spokane International Airport can expect new security measures on their way to departing flights.

Kevin Donovan, the TSA’s acting federal security director, demonstrated what the agency calls an explosive trace detection machine. It’s now being employed in virtually all major airports across the United States partly in reaction to the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit.

TSA agents use a swab on the passenger’s hand. The swab is inserted into the machine and within a couple seconds the machine tells the agent whether the person has traces of things that could be used as explosives, Donovan said.

“More and more travelers will see this,” he said. “There’s really not a false alarm. It doesn’t mean there is a bomb, but it does mean we … will do additional screening.”

The machine tests for residue, such as nitrates that are sometimes used in bomb making. However, farmers who recently handled fertilizer, hunters who fired weapons could test positive. Even some hand lotions have shown to trigger the alarm, Donovan said. Asked if the technology has stopped any potential bombs, Donovan said that information was “classified.”

“It’s obviously powerful, useful technology,” he said. “It’s an added layer. It makes it harder for a perpetrator” to sneak a bomb onto a plane.

Some of the machines are mobile, meaning that some travelers can expect what the TSA called “random” searches even after clearing security. Donovan said the test takes about eight seconds.

“This procedure will not affect wait times,” he said. “There is no attempt to profile any passengers. It is just the next passenger in line.”

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