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Keeping you safe when you fly: Inside TSA operations at JAX

I-TEAM given rare access to restricted security areas at Jacksonville International Airport

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When you fly out of Jacksonville International Airport, you give your luggage to the airline and it’s whisked away for inspection. You won’t see it again until you get to the baggage claim at your final destination. We wanted to know how your luggage is screened once it’s taken away from you and moved to an area of the airport travelers are never allowed to see.

With our I-TEAM cameras rolling, the Transportation Security Administration took us into those restricted areas of JAX for a rare look at what’s done daily to check passengers’ luggage for explosives and prohibited items – especially during the busy holiday season.

We were escorted behind closed doors to witness TSA agents in action as they work to scrutinize checked baggage and keep passengers safe.

“We are standing in the midst of what we call an in-line baggage screening system which is the most sophisticated type of system, and they are very lucky to have it here in Jacksonville,” said TSA spokesperson Sari Koshetz. “So, the bag is dropped off with the ticket agent with your airline, they put it on a belt, (and) it goes through this massive journey."

On an average day at JAX, more than 10,000 passengers fly in and out of the airport – bringing with them at least 6,500 checked bags and another 6,000 carry-on items.

Leading up to holidays like Christmas, those numbers grow exponentially, and so do the scope of the efforts to prevent terrorism.

“Everything we do has a reason,” Koshetz explained. “We know that there are still terrorists out there. Their goal is to bring down an aircraft, and we have to be sure that we check every person."

Bags inside the secure TSA area at JAX
Bags inside the secure TSA area at JAX (WJXT)

TSA uses a state-of-the-art Explosive Detection System (EDS) to scan the checked baggage. If no threats are detected with a bag, it continues on outbound conveyor belts to the cargo area -- and eventually onto a plane. But, if for some reason your bag is flagged, it ends up in what’s called the resolution area.

“This is our onscreen alarm resolution room where we have a couple officers. They actually review the image from the EDS machine and then they determine if there is a threat in the bag or not," explained Brad Baudek, the deputy director of TSA Jacksonville. Questionable luggage is delivered to TSA officers by conveyor belt, and if after inspection they’re given the all clear, a robotic inspection table moves them on to the outbound conveyor belts – which means a lot less heavy lifting.

Tarik Minor speaks with Brad Baudek, deputy director of TSA Jacksonville
Tarik Minor speaks with Brad Baudek, deputy director of TSA Jacksonville (WJXT)

“We’re seeing about 6,500 bags a day so it’s just one less bag they have to lift,” Baudek explained. “A lot of these checked bags are really heavy, so it really saves on the back injuries for the officers and so really preserving their healthy work life."

You might think a majority of luggage is searched by TSA officers by hand, but the reality is very few bags actually require a human touch. Technology is so advanced, and it’s getting better every day at detecting anything that could be considered a threat. “TSA is people, processes and technology. Our people have skills and they are constantly trained to look for threats that are hidden and everyday items,” explained Koshetz. “We have processes that you are seeing here today, and we have technology that keeps evolving to go according to the threat.” TSA officers also suggest travelers lock their bags when they travel with a TSA-approved lock, which their agents have the keys to. That way the bag can remain secured, but if officers need to get inside, they can do so without breaking a lock open.

Suitcase with a TSA-approved lock, which allows agents to open the suitcase without breaking the lock.
Suitcase with a TSA-approved lock, which allows agents to open the suitcase without breaking the lock. (WJXT)

Security checkpoints for passengers

Before you are allowed into the passenger concourses at Jacksonville International Airport, you must pass through a TSA checkpoint. That’s where you and your carry-ons are screened for prohibited items.

“We’re all here to make sure you get to your destination safely,” Koshetz said.

TSA officers confiscated 460 guns at Florida airports just this year. And here at JAX, they’ve also discovered knife blades, grenades and even ninja stars. But finding those prohibited items is just one part of what happens at the security checkpoint. "This is where we are checking your ID and your boarding pass -- making sure they’re both authentic,” said Koshetz.

The first layer of security is face-to-face with trained federal TSA agents who use ultraviolet scanners to screen for fake or altered identification. From there, you’re likely familiar with the process of screening your carry-ons, but you might not know much about the technology that’s being used to do that. TSA agents in JAX are using new computed tomography scanners which render X-ray images in 3-D to TSA agents. The scanners are smart enough to detect explosives or other threats that could be inside a passenger’s carry-on.

Passengers are screened just as thoroughly.

“This is the advanced imaging technology, and you see the yellow spots there, that means that we’re going to have to find out what caused that to alarm,” Koshetz showed us.

That technology generates a generic image that is the same for every passenger -- unless there is a threat hidden under a person’s clothing. If something abnormal is detected, the machine generates a yellow box, which then results in a pat-down conducted by a TSA agent of the same gender. The machine uses harmless, electromagnetic rays to complete that scanning process.

The Advanced Imaging Technology body scanner at the TSA checkpoint at JAX shows areas that are abnormal with a yellow box.
The Advanced Imaging Technology body scanner at the TSA checkpoint at JAX shows areas that are abnormal with a yellow box. (WJXT)

While passengers are walking through the full-body scanners, agents are completing the scans of their carry-on bags. If the luggage scanner detects a threat, further testing is necessary with an Explosive Trace Detection machine.

“So, our officer is doing some swabs for explosives. This might be done on a passenger’s bag for a reason, or this might be done randomly,” Koshetz explained. “It’s very sophisticated, and it’s got programmed into it, all types of explosives. Perhaps you touched fertilizer in the past day of two, then it may alarm for explosives, but we can go back and see what you had contact with, swab your hands again, and determine that you had no threat in your heart."

Another critical piece of technology is one that allows TSA to check containers of liquid medicines or breast milk -- that are in quantities above the permitted amount – without agents having to open the packaging.

Liquids inside carry-on bags at JAX are checked without the container being opened.
Liquids inside carry-on bags at JAX are checked without the container being opened. (WJXT)

“Say that was a bottle of cough medicine that I need to take. It’s more than 3.4 ounces. He can place it in this machine. It is called a bottle liquid scanner, BLS, and it is going to determine that I don’t have liquid explosives in that bottle," said Koshetz.

All of these tests and scans are often conducted at random with the goal of securing the millions of travelers who take to America’s airways every day.

Useful information for air travelers from the TSA: