By SCOTT LINDLAW - At the airport check-in of tomorrow, "getting through security" should take 30 seconds.
Passengers breeze through a series of scanners that probe for explosives, weapons, even drugs. Shoes stay on feet, laptops in cases. A machine confirms that a bottle of wine is wine, and not a disguised cocktail of bomb ingredients.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted a clampdown at the nation's airports and a new era of aggravation at security checkpoints. They also accelerated a race to develop better screening technology, research that has advanced with each thwarted terrorism plot.
Some of these devices are already snooping your luggage as part of a 2002 congressional mandate that all checked baggage be scrutinized for explosives, but technical glitches and funding problems stand in the way of other technologies.
Key questions remain: Are these ready to handle thousands of passengers per hour, and their belongings?
"Some things are imminently deployable. Some things are further off," said Steve Hill, spokesman for GE Security, the unit of General Electric Co. that makes transportation security equipment. "We are not light years off."
Although one futuristic device known as the "puffer" already is in use at San Francisco International and 36 other airports, the government halted its continued rollout recently because of concerns about reliability. The Transportation Security Administration declined to elaborate.
Critics also question whether the Bush administration is investing enough, even as it spent nearly $1 billion in fiscal 2006 on explosive-detection equipment for checked luggage and checkpoint screening.
TSA and the Department of Homeland Security have repeatedly failed to spend tens of millions of dollars that Congress earmarked for new airport security equipment.
In 2003, TSA cut most of its $75 million research budget to try to address a deficit. Its research office was later consolidated into DHS's research arm, which has failed to spend $200 million from past years, leading lawmakers to rescind the money this summer.
"The TSA is groping around, moving money," said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. "They don't have enough money to have enough employees, and they can't buy new equipment."
Even as the recent British terror plot was unfolding, Homeland Security quietly tried to take away $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new technology for detecting explosives.
There will never be enough money or improvements in technology, said Richard Lanza, senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"We're always faced with this unpleasant and nasty fact: people are going to come up with new explosives which won't be detected by this," Lanza said. "You're just trying to make it harder for the bad guys."
Among the newer technologies, the puffer is a tall, clear cylinder that looks like a Star Trek transporter. Passengers chosen largely at random are hit with quick blasts of air -- not quite enough to ruffle the hair -- to dislodge trace particles of explosives or narcotics from a passenger's skin and clothing. An instant microscopic analysis determines whether the passenger has been exposed to illicit substances.
In the future, luggage will be "sniffed" for minute traces of explosives or bombarded with neutrons, subjecting it to CT scans, which differs from traditional x-rays in that they take hundreds of pictures of an object from a variety of angles.
Passengers at San Francisco's international terminal can glimpse a "Checkpoint of the Future" as envisioned by GE Security.
The company has set up camp next to the checkpoint of today, a working security zone where plastic bins clatter and passengers shuffle through metal detectors. The GE "lab" is a nonworking checkpoint where the company is researching and tweaking its gear in hopes of winning government approvals and ironing out technical glitches.
Much of that gear is mock-up equipment where company officials can demonstrate the dream: a half-minute process, starting with a device that scans a passenger's finger for explosives and drug particles. A conveyor belt would use CT to peer at carry-on items. A body scan would look through clothing for knives, guns and bombs. A shoe scanner would end the need to kick off footwear.
GE Security said it has spent more than $100 million over the last five years in developing next-generation aviation screening technologies and products.
The government is particularly interested in developing the ability to quickly analyze what's inside liquid containers following the recent discovery of a London-based plot to bring down airliners using explosives disguised as common household items, said Jennifer Peppin, a spokeswoman for the TSA's Western region.
Rapiscan Systems Neutronics and Advanced Technologies of Santa Clara is trying to perfect a device that can peer into bottles, books and shoes and identify explosives inside. The scanner, slightly larger than a tipped-over phone booth, hits the object with neutrons and analyzes the gamma rays that bounce back, telling the machine which elements are present.
One recent afternoon, Rapiscan's chief operating officer, Pat Shea, placed a bottle of wine in the machine's drawer and started the analysis. A whirring sound followed for about 40 seconds, followed by an analysis: the bottle indeed contained wine.
Despite all the years and dollars his company has poured into research and development, Shea cautions against an over-reliance on technology.
"No one device is a silver bullet," he said. "The devices are a tool that's badly needed. You've got this classic needle in a haystack search, but made much easier if you have a magnet to work with. If you have to reach through the haystack with your hand until something pricks your finger, it'll take a long time."