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What Airport Security Could Look Like in 10 Years

Is there even a possibility that we won't have to take off our shoes on the TSA line someday?

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The airport of the future

Shoe scanners, fewer false alarms, and easier security? You’re not dreaming. That may be the new reality at airports around the country in the very near future. Yes, getting through security will finally get faster and easier. Air travel will also be a whole lot safer. Currently, the TSA screens more than 2 million people a day, and airports nationwide have around 950 advanced-imaging technology machines. Soon, they’ll have even more cutting-edge tech at their disposal. Here are a few of the security changes that will likely come your way within the next decade.

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Shoe scanners

One very soon-to-be available technology is millimeter-wave imaging systems for shoes. With this innovation, travelers would no longer have to take off their shoes, and checkpoint lines would move faster. “Whereas most shoe scanners are only metal detectors and cannot find chemical powders or other contraband, the millimeter-wave shoe scanners—called the SS1—can detect weaponry, explosive substances, compounds, or electronics concealed in shoes and other footwear,” says Dana Wheeler, CEO of the Massachusetts-based Plymouth Rock Technologies. If an alarm is triggered, the passenger is simply redirected to the conveyor belt, where they will be asked to take off their shoes for more intensive screening. Shoe scanners can also be used at other key points during the travel process, including at the ticket counter, when passengers are checking baggage, and at the gates. In case you were wondering, this is what a TSA agent first notices about you.

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Additional screening spots

In the future, airport security will include multiple layers of security screening outside of the main checkpoint where all travelers are screened today, according to Wheeler. “These additional layers will be located at passenger drop-off spots outside the departure areas, airport and off-airport parking lots, and walkways and tunnels approaching the departure and ticket kiosks,” he explains. Since there will be multiple security spots, problems have the potential to be flagged early, so it might ultimately be faster to get through the final security checkpoint. But the bottom line here is that the airport screening process will be more thorough and safer for all passengers. Here are 11 secrets to speeding through airport security.

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AI security

In addition to cameras, security areas will be equipped with smarter, next-generation security devices that incorporate artificial intelligence. “These will include millimeter-wave imaging and radar, infrared sensors, and chemical trace sensors,” Wheeler says. The devices will detect threats and/or suspicious activity at distances well outside the airport gates, where there are fewer crowds. This will create a safer environment inside the airport terminals, according to Wheeler. Advanced technology like this is making its way into all aspects of your life, not just at the airport.

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More automation

There will also be some notable changes inside the airport. You’re already seeing the beginning of this, with the self-serve kiosks and online check-in for certain airlines. “This is a definite indicator that staffed check-in desks are being phased out,” Wheeler explains. This is bittersweet, however: Many of those staffing the check-in areas will most likely lose their jobs, but it could save travelers money in the long run. If they aren’t paying those employees, then perhaps they’ll lower the travel fees? This is also in line with the increased self-automation that works directly with our phones—tech that you’ve likely already used. “More of us are also having notifications for boarding, flight information and schedule changes automatically sent to our smartphones,” says Wheeler. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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Biometric and blockchain technology

Biometric and blockchain security technologies will lead to a fully automated entrance and exit cycle, Wheeler says. In the future, once checked in and scanned, passengers will be issued a biometric token that serves as a passport check, boarding pass, and ID for the trip. This may not be a physical token. It could be stored securely in a smartphone. We’re even starting to see this technology implemented by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for immigration, he adds. Here are another 12 futuristic things that already exist.

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Better facial-recognition technology

Facial technology is advancing at a very significant pace, and it will soon become an integral part of the check-in process. Passengers will be scanned for biometric identifiers beyond simple facial features. “Iris patterns are even more unique than fingerprints,” Wheeler explains. “Using a combination of both would be a very secure verification of identity.” This information, shared through new encryption technologies with immigration and security officials, will ultimately ease the arrival and departure process. Heathrow and Schiphol airports are already testing out this technology, which could be used to track passengers from arrival to departure. It has so far been faster and more reliable than checking passports manually. It may not all be good news, however. This is why you should be worried about facial-recognition boarding passes.

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Purpose-built airports

The two biggest challenges that U.S. airport security officials face? No two airports are the same, and space is always at a premium, says Douglas Smith, former Assistant Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security and current advisory board member of Plymouth Rock Technologies. “Purpose-built airports, like the new one in Doha, Qatar, were all designed from the bottom up in this new threat environment we find ourselves in,” Smith explains. “U.S. airports are forced to fit 21st-century fixes into many airports that were brought online before metal detectors were even deployed.”

What’s the difference between a purpose-built airport and an older one? It’s kind of like living in a brand-new house versus living in a 50-year-old house and trying to renovate and modernize it, Smith explains. Most airports were built pre-9/11, and they weren’t designed for the new technology and security we now need and utilize. “Now we have to figure out how to fit and squeeze all this modern technology into an old building,” Smith says. New airports will be built with this technology in mind, so they will be more efficient and safer for travelers.

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Fewer false alarms

Equipment operators need to be well educated on how each piece of security equipment works and what they detect. They also need to have equipment that will take the “threat versus no threat” decision out of their hands, Wheeler says, in order to become more efficient. “Most people may not realize that TSA agents, for example, must look for more than knives, guns, or needles,” he explains. “They are also looking for components that might make a weapon.” They need to look at the shapes and piece together the puzzle, but operator fatigue can lead to errors.

Resolving these issues and tightening the airport-security gaps will involve using newer technologies designed to work with and enhance the value of existing airport CT scanning and metal-detecting security equipment. With advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the new imaging technologies, such as millimeter-wave shoe-scanning and stand-off imaging and radar, the false-alarm rates will go down, and the operators will not have to make those difficult decisions on their own.

Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff regularly covers travel, health and lifestyle for Reader's Digest. Her articles have also been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe and other publications. She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a master's degree in musicology from Oxford University in England. Danielle is based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two children. See her recent articles at You can follow her on Facebook @Danielle.Karpinos, Twitter @daniellebraff, and Instagram at danikarp.