By PAISLEY DODDS, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — A shimmy toward the body scanner, a step into the booth and a wave of the arms — routine procedure now at U.S. airports, but not necessarily in Europe.
In the wake of a foiled al-Qaida plot to bomb a jet heading to the U.S., it's unclear whether cash-strapped Europe has the latest security equipment to thwart an airliner attack, or whether machines will be able to keep up with determined terrorists.
With the summer Olympics expected to draw millions of visitors to London, airport security has taken on renewed urgency. A look at the issues:
Terror groups bent on blowing up U.S.-bound jetliners are experimenting with explosives that use non-metal detonators. That means bombs might be missed by traditional metal detectors used at most international airports. The question is whether to switch to newer, expensive and more intrusive scanners.
There are two types of full-body scanners in wide use in U.S. airports. Backscatter X-ray scanners employ advanced imaging technology and small doses of ionized radiation to detect objects concealed underneath a person's clothing. Millimeter wave scanners use radio frequencies for the same purpose.
Peter Kant, executive vice president of Rapiscan Systems, which makes the Backscatter, says the machines have fewer blind spots, are fast and can detect both metal and other potential explosives concealed on someone's body, though it's unclear whether they can spot explosives inside someone's body cavity. The downside is they are expensive and some critics have questioned their safety.
Experts say trials of the millimeter wave technology in Rome and Helsinki have resulted in frequent false alarms and delays.
In airports outside the U.S., most passengers simply go through metal detectors and have their carry-on luggage scanned.
"There is a concern that overseas security doesn't match ours. That's an ongoing challenge," says House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan.
Europe has never required full-body scans, and efforts to install U.S.-style backscatter machines were stalled last year when the European Commission ordered a study into their safety.
An independent body has since found that little risk is involved.
But it's too soon to say when — if ever — advanced machines might be installed in European airports. Some cost more than $160,000, and in cash-strapped Europe, that's a hefty price.
Even in Britain, which can opt out of some EU dictates, there are only 20 or so backscatter machines. And those are only in trial usage.
In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration "is both the customer and the operator, whereas in Europe and other regions the regulator sets requirements and the airport picks up the bill," says Ben Vogel of IHS Jane's Airport Review. "The mix of stakeholders in Europe often leads to divergent positions on embracing technological change."
France's Charles de Gaulle Airport experimented with full body scanners in 2010 but decided against them.
"We determined that the automated detection software was not reliable enough," says Eric Heraud, a spokesman for the French civil aviation authority DGAC and the Paris airport authority.
So are the current systems enough to stop a terrorist?
"No system is 100 percent reliable. You have to constantly adapt and improve any system," Heraud says.
Millimeter-based scanners have undergone trials at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, where the so-called underwear bomber passed undetected on Christmas Day in 2009. The plot was thwarted when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to ignite the explosives aboard a Detroit-bound jet.
There are more than 400 commercial airports in Europe, but only a small proportion handle trans-Atlantic traffic.
First, it was smuggling explosives in drink bottles in a trans-Atlantic plot to blow up several U.S.-bound planes in 2006. Then it was the Nigerian underwear bomber in 2009.
A year later terrorists tried to blow up explosive-packed printers bound for Chicago-area synagogues using the alarm function of two cell phones wired to syringes full of lead azide, a moisture-resistant powder that takes only a small electric charge to explode — much like the bomb in the latest plot.