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Logan is first with scanners

Full-body images part of the drill starting Monday

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / March 6, 2010

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The first of 450 controversial full-body scanners to be deployed at airports around the country this year will be put into use at Logan International Airport on Monday.

About 120 passengers went through one of the machines at Logan’s Terminal A as part of a test yesterday.

Logan has received three machines, which scan passengers’ bodies for weapons and explosives beneath their clothing using low-level X-ray beams, and the airport is expected to have more than a dozen in place at three terminals by the end of the summer. The units, which cost $130,000 to $170,000, were purchased with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

The use of the scanners in airports is key to the Obama administration’s plan to improve airport security, and Logan officials pushed to be the first airport to get the new scanners, said Edward Freni, director of aviation at Logan. “We want to be the laboratory where these things are tested.’’

Deployment of the body scanners has been slowed by objections from privacy advocates over the detailed images the machines produce. But according to a recent TripAdvisor.com poll, 78 percent of 2,249 travelers surveyed said they were comfortable with the use of full-body scanners. People who opt not to go through the scanner will be patted down instead.

Laurie Thompson of Lowell, who was flying from Boston to Florida yesterday, said the idea of having her body scanned didn’t worry her.

“I’m all for safety,’’ she said. “The only thing that really bothers me is when we have to take off our shoes.’’

To undergo the scan, which utilizes backscatter technology, passengers step between two booths, turn to the side, and raise their hands above their heads. A slightly blurred black and white image of the traveler’s body pops up on a screen viewed by a Transportation Security Administration agent in a separate location.

If something out of the ordinary is detected, the agent radios the TSA worker at the scanner to have the passenger searched. For privacy reasons, the agent with the passenger never sees the passenger’s image, and the agent viewing the image never sees the passenger. The process takes less than 20 seconds.

The radiation levels used in these machines have been tested extensively, said Lee Kair, assistant administrator for security operations at the TSA. “It’s equivalent to the amount of radiation that a passenger would receive in two minutes of flight,’’ he said.

The next round of full-body scanners will be installed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago within a week. The TSA plans to install 150 at 11 airports by the summer, and 300 more by the end of the year.

Forty full-body scanners that use millimeter wave technology, which bounces electromagnetic waves off the body, are in use at 19 airports nationwide. The Obama administration has called for the purchase of 500 additional machines in 2011.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.