Three years ago, with great fanfare, federal officials unveiled a terror-fighting machine they called the "puff portal," a contraption that...

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Three years ago, with great fanfare, federal officials unveiled a terror-fighting machine they called the “puff portal,” a contraption that resembled a Star Trek transporter booth and was designed to detect explosives at airport checkpoints with unprecedented precision.

When a passenger stepped inside the puff portal, so the officials said, the machine would send sharp bursts of air to dislodge particles from the body, hair and clothing, and analyze them for microscopic traces of explosives.

But the expensive devices — each costs about $160,000 — have been largely ineffectual and the much ballyhooed $30 million program is starting to look like a techno-folly to some critics.

Less than 25 percent of an anticipated 434 devices have been deployed nationwide, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which listed the cause as “performance and maintenance issues.”

No new machines have been deployed since last year, and, despite ongoing review and repairs, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration acknowledges it still has not fixed the problems and cannot say when or if the program will be restarted.

“TSA continues to work with the manufacturer on improving maintenance elements of first-generation units,” wrote Christopher White, a TSA spokesman, in an e-mail response to questions from The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., about the program’s status. “A timeline has not been established for deploying additional trace portals.”

Puff portals

What: The idea is that when a passenger steps inside the puff portal, the machine sends bursts of air to dislodge particles from the body, hair and clothing, and analyzes them for traces of explosives.

Cost: $160,000 each. A $30 million pilot program includes purchase, installation and maintenance.

How many: Less than 25 percent of an anticipated 434 devices have been deployed nationwide, with 95 units sent to 38 airports, in cities including Newark, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco.

Made by: Smiths Detection and GE Security, a subsidiary of General Electric Co.

Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office

Newhouse News Service

A total of 95 units have been deployed to 38 airports, according to White, who said the $30 million cost includes the initial pilot program and purchase, installation and maintenance for the puff portals.

White would not elaborate on the continuing troubles with the machines.

The ongoing problems with the puff portals come at a time of heightened security concerns for the nation’s aviation system.

Earlier this month, authorities said they foiled a would-be plot to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport by targeting the hub’s jet-fuel tanks and lines.

At Newark (N.J.) Liberty International Airport, each of the nine checkpoints was supposed to have a puff portal. Only two units — one in Terminal A and the other in Terminal B — are in operation, with none in Terminal C, the hub’s busiest.

Both machines have been plagued by false alarms and an inability to reset properly, according to a TSA supervisor, who said repairs made earlier this year have not helped.

“We all laugh about it now because we never know if it’s working or not,” said the supervisor, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to discuss TSA issues.

The machines deployed to Newark Liberty were manufactured by a New Jersey company, Smiths Detection of Pine Brook.

Mark Laustra, vice president and general manager of homeland security for the firm, said the company continues to work to improve the machine’s filter troubles and other glitches.

“We didn’t understand the amount of dust and dirt that was in an airport. The filter was getting clogged way too often,” said Laustra.

He explained the filters were replaced with easier-to-clean models on both machines at Newark Liberty in February.

“I’m a little surprised to hear they’re still having a lot of troubles with them,” said Laustra. He added the company also has made “minor software improvements” and will continue to make other “incremental” upgrades.

TSA also purchased puff portals from GE Security, a subsidiary of General Electric Co.

“We continue to work with the TSA on any issues that are of concern to them,” said Steve Hill, a GE spokesman, adding “we continue to be confident in the future of the product.”

In addition to Newark Liberty, other airports where puff portals were deployed include John F. Kennedy International, Boston Logan International, Los Angeles International, Miami International and San Francisco International.

In its recent report, the GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, determined “limited progress has been made in fielding explosives detection technology at passenger screening checkpoints.”

That blunt assessment came six months after the nation’s aviation-security system placed unprecedented focus on bomb detection, following the August 2006 disruption of an alleged plot by terrorists to use liquid explosives to blow up planes traveling from Great Britain to the United States.

“Due to performance and maintenance issues, TSA halted the acquisition and deployment of the [puff] portals in June 2006, and the acquisition of additional portals is contingent on resolution of these issues,” the GAO also found in its report.

“It’s probably DOA,” said Mike Boyd, a Denver-based aviation consultant and longtime TSA critic, of the puff portal program. “This is another example of them spending a lot of money on technology they’re unsure of and then mothballing [it].”

Charles Slepian, chief executive officer of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, a consulting firm in New York, questioned the overall value of puff portals, even without all the problems.

Slepian called the device “the sloppy terrorist-detection machine” because it requires would-be bombers to leave traces of explosives on their body or clothes for authorities to discover a bomb. He also said he is not surprised the agency continues to say it is studying the program, rather than admitting to a mistake.

“Nobody wants to take responsibility for having supported this project in the first place,” said Slepian. “Accountability just isn’t in the lexicon of the TSA.”

Detecting explosives at checkpoints remains among the most nettlesome areas for TSA, which federalized aviation security from a private contractor system after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Walk-through metal detectors are essentially useless against plastic and liquid explosives. X-ray machines at the checkpoint are more helpful for alert screeners because they can show the outlines of bottles and potential bombs, wires and detonators. Additionally, if a screener has reason for concern, he or she can swipe a bag with a cloth that is then tested electronically for explosives.

But the current system has produced spotty results in tests.

In October, for example, screeners at Newark Liberty failed 20 of 22 undercover security tests by U.S. agents, missing mostly concealed fake bombs at the checkpoints, according to federal security officials familiar with the results.

Tests for explosives and weapons at other major airports also have produced consistently poor results, the GAO has found in various reports.

White, the TSA spokesman, declined to detail what steps the agency has taken to make up for the loss of puff portals and help ensure passenger safety, writing only, “TSA has a layered approach to security.”

On May 22, however, the TSA issued a news release announcing a pilot program testing a hand-held scanning device with “a technology capable of screening sealed bottled liquids for explosives.” Newark Liberty was among a half-dozen airports where the unit has been tested, according to TSA.

“Because the technology is performing well in pilot testing, TSA anticipates deploying up to 200 bottled liquid scanners to the nation’s busiest airports” by October, the agency said in its release.

Steve Elson, a former member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Red Team that found serious lapses in airport security before Sept. 11, said he is hopeful the new scanners will prove valuable in the fight against aviation terrorists.

As for the puff portals, Elson said, “The idea is good — but they have to work. That’s the part they always miss at the TSA.”