Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano predicted Tuesday that airline passengers in the future will no longer be instructed to remove their shoes at airport security checkpoints, but she said the technology to scan shoe-wearing passengers for bombs does not yet exist and may not be available soon.
No technology meets government standards to screen shoes for explosives at airports while passengers wear them. Officials have not been able to say for certain that this technology will exist in the future, though they are working to develop it.
Removing shoes during screening has been a common complaint among airline travelers since security was increased after a member of al-Qaida tried to detonate a bomb built into his shoe aboard an American Airlines flight in December 2001.
Napolitano said restrictions on carrying liquids on planes — imposed after another terrorist plot to detonate disguised bombs on board planes in August 2006 — probably will remain in effect.
"We'd love to have a kind of a screening portal that you just step in and, boom, it's got everything and you go through and it's painless and very, very quick," Napolitano said at a breakfast meeting organized by Politico, a Washington news organization.
"The technology isn't quite there yet and it won't be for a while, but I think one of the first things you will see over time is the ability to keep your shoes on, and one of the last things you will probably see is a reduction or removing the limitation on liquids."
While a number of companies claim to have technology for scanning shoes, it's more difficult to distinguish coke or a water bottle from explosives.
"Kudos to the TSA, to the Department of Homeland Security, for being interested in what travelers' concerns are," said Geoff Freeman of the U.S. Travel Association. "To date, we have not made ridding ourselves of those policies as much of a priority as we need to make it."
Freeman believes Americans would fly more if airport security wasn't such a hassle — adding more travel would be a boost for the U.S. economy.
The government announced earlier that TSA will begin testing a program this fall with a small number of travelers who volunteer personal information. If cleared, these travelers could go through security faster — in some cases, because they won't be asked to take their shoes off. But participants still might be asked to remove their shoes, TSA Administrator John Pistole told The Associated Press.
"It makes sense to try to identify those who are willing to share information about themselves, and if we can make some judgments about them as part of this risk-based screening initiative, then perhaps one of the benefits is they can in all likelihood keep their shoes on," Pistole said.
Pistole said that TSA will always perform random and unpredictable screening, so that passengers who aren't asked to remove their shoes might be asked to remove their shoes on the next trip.
"Just to keep her guessing," he said. "The last thing we want to do is allow terrorists to game the system."