Consumer Travel Alliance on use of Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) at airports


The Consumer Travel Alliance feels that Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) effort is a step in the right direction for airport and airline security. Unlike the whole-body scanners that have not been fully tested, that admittedly cannot detect many explosives in powder form or when hidden in body cavities, and that subject Americans to the indignity of a virtual strip search, ETD provides an acceptable layer of security. It is focused on explosives, it has been tested extensively over years of use, and the method is non-invasive, protecting personal dignity.

The Consumer Travel Alliance emphasizes that this security procedure and the others utilized at airports are not the first line of defense against terrorist activity. The real guts and focus of our nation’s antiterrorist activities must be intelligence gathering and effective coordination between agencies responsible for updating and maintaining our terrorist watchlist.

Policies must be put in place to deal quickly with false positives such as from passengers who may have been fertilizing their lawn or planting shrubs prior to arriving at the airport; for anyone legitimately engaged in hunting, shooting activities or simply striking matches; for anyone taking nitroglycerin for medical purposes or working with explosives. These are all know to produce false positives. Even a very small percentage of false positives will create a negative perception of these new security procedure.

In response to some of these concerns, TSA released this post on their blog:

Many shooters and others who work around chemicals or munitions have questions about flying since the recent announcement that TSA has begun randomly swabbing hands for Explosives Trace Detection tests (ETD). We’re also aware of all of the traveling military, firefighters and law enforcement personnel who are around various accelerants and munitions on a daily basis. In fact, we’re aware of all of the different people whose professions and hobbies might cause them to alarm the ETD machine because we’ve been using this technology for years. One thing to understand right away is that TSA has to balance security with convenience. Part of our mission is to keep the flying public safe, and being safe isn’t always convenient. No matter how much of an expert you are at traveling, it’s not guaranteed that you won’t be stopped for additional screening of some sort.

TSA has been using this technology since we started federalizing the airports in 2002. We are well aware that there are occasionally false positives and other cases where people who work around munitions and chemicals will alarm the machines .

From reading responses on our blog and elsewhere, it’s almost as if people think that if they alarm during an ETD test, a net is going to drop from the ceiling and federal agents will start rapelling down the walls. Not so… we have long had procedures in place that help us mitigate real threats while clearing people who pose no threat to travel.

Also, people have been doing some research and have learned that ETD machines can detect narcotics. While this is true, TSA does not calibrate our machines to test for narcotics. Narcotics will not cause catastrophic damage to a plane, so we’re not searching for them. However, we do stumble upon them while searching for other things. Wherever you can hide drugs, you can hide bombs, so we may end up accidentally finding your stash.

I’ve heard on the radio and read on Twitter that some think we’re taking DNA samples with these swabs and testing for H1N1. ETD machines cannot analyze DNA or test for H1N1.

When used to test hands, ETD swabs are not reused on other passengers. (See above photo for examples of what ETD swabs look like)

And the final question I’d like to answer is what happens if you refuse the ETD swab? If you refuse the ETD Swab, you will be referred to additional screening, which depending upon the results may result in a referral to a law enforcement officer.

  • Carrie Charney

    The swabs are fine with me and should be used in addition to the kind of oral interview that is performed in Israeli airports.

  • B.J.

    I simply must buy some stock in plastic glove mfg’s.