May 27 2008

TSA's New Security Bag

New notebook bag will let business travelers clear security without having to remove the computer from its case.

Getting through airport security these days isn’t easy. Business travelers have to take off their shoes; rid themselves of anything that might set off a metal detector; place any bottles of liquid, properly bagged, in a bin; have their identification and boarding pass in hand; and remove their notebook computers from their bags so they can be scanned by security.

There might not be much that the Transportation Security Administration can do about the shoes or the bottles, but TSA is trying to make carrying a notebook onto a flight easier for the 25 percent of all air travelers who do.

In March, the TSA issued a request for information (RFI) to manufacturers of notebook bags, asking them to develop prototypes of bags that would be able to make it through an airport security scan. The goal is to create a bag that will go through a scan with a computer inside and still let TSA officers see what they need to see. Travelers who use such a bag wouldn’t have to take out their notebooks and send them through unprotected.

Manufacturers had until April 17 to submit their bag designs to the TSA. The agency now will choose the designs it likes best, and the manufacturers selected will have until the end of May to produce prototypes. 

The TSA specified the following basic requirements for the bags in its RFI:

  • The carrying bag cannot exceed any one of the proposed dimensions —16 inches in height, 24 inches wide and 36 inches long.
  • The materials that make up the bag cannot degrade the quality of the X-ray image of the notebook.
  • No straps, pockets, zippers, handles or closures of the bag can interfere with the image of the notebook.
  • No electronics, chargers, batteries, wires, paper products, pens or other contents of the bag can shield the image of the notebook.

That all sounds simple enough, but the actual creation of a bag that meets the TSA’s needs has proved to be complicated for manufacturers. One big issue, manufacturers say, is that it’s the notebook itself, not the bag that it’s in, that causes problems with scans.

“The question isn’t always what’s in a laptop but what’s behind the laptop,” says Al Giazzon, vice president of marketing at Targus Group International,  a bag maker based in Anaheim, Calif. “It just blocks visibility to other areas of the bag, and that’s one of the TSA’s issues. Machinery allows TSA officers to see the laptop and its components but not past it.”

Manufacturers aren’t divulging much about their designs yet, given the end-of-May deadline for the prototype, but Giazzon hints at one idea: a separate enclosure that very quickly unhinges from the rest of the bag, lays flat and can be scanned. It’s a one-second uncoupling, but there’s still just one piece.

There’s more to consider than design, though, says Jeff Warde, director of marketing at Case Logic, a bag manufacturer based in Longmont, Colo.  The TSA’s set of requirements is “a little obtuse,” he says.

Warde says TSA requires that the materials that make up the bag cannot “degrade” the quality of the image of the notebook. But it’s not clear what that means.

“Are the materials going to be that much different from what we’re using now?” Warde poses. “I would tend to think not, but you never know.”

Nevertheless, business travelers are excited about the prospect of keeping their computer equipment protected and eliminating at least a little bit of hassle in crowded airport security lines.

John Elmer, vice president of information services and controller at The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization,  a New York–based company that manages intellectual property for composers of musicals, would love to see the TSA help bring the curtain down on security hassles.

“I’ve run down the jet way with two laptops tucked under my arm and a bag over my shoulder,” Elmer says. “A laptop brings the security-travel thing to a whole different level.”

Elmer manages about a dozen employee notebooks at R&H. He says he hasn’t experienced any notebook damage from an airport screening, although the notebooks have sustained damage on airplanes. For the most part, though, “people are pretty careful with them,” he says.

Still, he says he’d buy scan-safe bags for employees as long as the bags came at a reasonable price. “If it were available as an option, we’d take it,” he says. “If it was three times the price, we probably wouldn’t. If it were in the same range, we would.”

TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis says the primary goal of a TSA-recognized notebook bag would be to enhance the security process. “Allowing passengers to leave the laptop in the bag would be a time saver,” she says.

A scan-safe bag would be a boon not just for travelers but also for the TSA itself. Davis says that other goals for the bag project include reducing stress for TSA security officers — and reducing the number of claims the TSA receives every year for lost or stolen notebooks.

Manufacturers also see opportunity in producing a bag that will immediately catch the eye of a TSA agent at the airport as being suitable for a scan. Warde says Case Logic sees the TSA’s initiative as a chance to open a new profit center led by scan-safe bags: “It’s a great challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity,” he says.

As for Elmer — and probably most travelers — the idea of not having to take a notebook out of its bag at airport security is “tremendous.” Elmer says that he’d absolutely buy a bag that would make that possible. “I certainly would use one,” he says, “and I think that most people would.”