ANNAPOLIS – For five years since a bad fall, Gaye Gould, a lawyer from Phoenix, Ariz., has had a titanium rod in her right leg. Until Sept. 28, after airport security intensified in response to terrorist attacks, it had never set off a metal detector.
Such orthopedic devices aren’t supposed to register, but hers did that day at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. That made her wonder why, a few days later, it didn’t set off the device when she went through a metal detector at Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
Could metal detectors at different airports be set to different levels?
The answer: They can be.
While the Federal Aviation Administration requires metal detectors be set at a minimum level, some airlines calibrate them higher, said Arlene Salac, spokeswoman for the FAA Eastern Region.
Because of this minimum requirement, sensitivity levels may vary between airports and possibly even between different piers in the same airport, said Melanie Miller, BWI spokeswoman.
At BWI, different airlines hire independent security companies to staff checkpoints at each of the airport’s five piers, allowing different security standards to be applied.
American Airlines uses Globe Aviation Services Corp.; Southwest and United Airlines, Argenbright Security Inc.; and US Airways and America West, Wackenhut Security Co.
Last week, Congress passed a bill to abolish this private security system and replace it with federal baggage screeners within the next year. But, the FAA doesn’t know how the bill will affect its minimum calibration level for metal detectors, Salac said.
Salac and Miller wouldn’t say at what level security companies must set metal detectors now, or what the machines would detect at that level or whether there were plans to increase it because of the recent terrorist attacks.
One of the things metal detectors aren’t supposed to pick up, however, is titanium, say orthopedists.
Metal detectors are looking for items with a high nickel content, a metal that isn’t in the alloys doctors use for repairing bones, said Dr. J. Patrick Caulfield of Bethesda-Chevy Chase Orthopedics.
Titanium is a metallic element, but doesn’t contain nickel.
This is what Gould’s doctor told her, but when she set the metal detector off anyway, she said she wondered if the airlines at Phoenix Sky Harbor had calibrated the machine to a higher level.
Since Sept. 11, when four teams of hijackers were able to sneak box cutters through metal detectors and use them to subdue crew and passengers, airports nationwide have been looking for ways to beef up security.
BWI, for example, is installing new explosive-detection machines that would eliminate the need for hand searching luggage for bombs.
Even so, many recent passengers at BWI weren’t satisfied with current security measures. Some disagree with the FAA’s minimum standard for metal detectors. They want the FAA to require all metal detectors be uniformly set to the highest level possible.
The metal detectors should be set to detect even the rivet on a pair of jeans, said Jo Trout, 53, from Richmond, Va., who works for the American Heart Association.
“They should be set very high — if they go off, they go off. If it means we’re safer on the airlines it’s OK,” Trout said.
One passenger said not only should the machines be set to the highest level, but also every passenger should be patted down.
“The inconvenience is worth it,” said Jeff Larson, 29, from Davidsonville who works for a digital pre-press company.
Metal-detector manufacturers say passenger inconvenience is one result of higher calibration levels. A second is higher false alarm rates.
If the machines were calibrated to higher levels, they would go off more and there’d be more false alarms, said Michael Ellenbogen, a vice president at PerkinElmer Inc., a Massachusetts-based company that sells screening equipment to BWI’s airlines.
“That just means you have to screen more people with the hand-held model,” he said.
Some passengers feel comfortable with the level the machines are at now and don’t want to be inconvenienced by having to come early and wait in long lines at security checkpoints.
“I like checking more than once. I don’t have a problem with that. But to have to stand in line and have every rivet checked, I don’t want to do it,” said Elvira York, 40, an associate at Prepaid Legal from Lima, Ohio.
York said she’d be mad if she missed her plane because it took too long to get through security.
“There has to be some expediency,” said Dave DuBois, 43, a sales associate from St. Louis.