Taking the leap through a full body scanner

This scanner is one of 44 bought at the start of the year by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. (Reuters file photo)

This scanner is one of 44 bought at the start of the year by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. (Reuters file photo)

LONDON, Ont. - Only a fool or a travel writer would ask to be subjected to additional security at an airport.

I qualify on one count - okay, sometimes on both - which explains why I was treated to a full body scan on my last visit to London Airport.

That scanner is one of 44 bought at the start of the year by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA).

More than 30 have been deployed so far, first at Class 1 airports - Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax - then at Class 2 ones - Victoria, Kelowna, Saskatoon, Regina, London, Quebec City, Moncton and St. John's.

London's had been in operation about six weeks when I went through Oct. 1.

I asked to be tested because I thought writing about it might make folks less nervous about this newest security development.

Flying, particularly since 9-11, has made all of us a bit antsy. If we weren't seeing expensive toiletries unceremoniously tossed, we're being patted down simply because our destination was Chicago rather than Calgary.

(Mandatory pat-downs of U.S.-bound passengers has stopped, you'll be relieved to know.) The arrival of the full body scanner raised new concerns, mainly that our private bits and bobs would be revealed on screen.

If the images reproduced on CATSA's website,, and in a brochure available at airports are accurate, we needn't worry.

The website likens the images to "a fuzzy photo negative." I thought they had a science fiction quality about them - humanoids in their undies looking as if they'd been dipped in pewter.

Not everyone who flies is scanned. It's a secondary measure, done either because you've been chosen at random or because something in the preliminary screening raised concerns.

If you are designated for secondary screening, you can choose to be patted down instead. (Few take that option, a CATSA examiner at London Airport told me).

Here's what scanning entails:

A security officer waits while you empty your pockets, enter a booth and stand where footprints are outlined on the floor. You raise your arms over your head, fingertips touching, and wait maybe five seconds.

You leave the booth and wait a few seconds more while the image is checked and a red or green signal is flashed to a receiver outside the booth.

What happens while you are in the booth is that a low-level radio frequency wave is transmitted over and around your body. It is not an X-ray.

According to the brochure, "The wave is reflected back from the body and from objects concealed on the body, producing a three-dimensional image." So if, for example, you're trying to smuggle a length of salami under your jeans, it will create a tell-tale bulge.

The image is sent to a monitor in a separate room outside the security checkpoint.

"This officer has no direct view of the passenger before, during or after the screening process ...'' the brochure adds, "images are deleted after they are viewed. Images cannot and will not be stored, printed or transmitted. The screening officer who assists the passenger never sees the image the scanner produces." The officer assisting me said before the scanner went public, he and a co-worker tested it. The operator who saw their images told them afterwards she couldn't tell which was which.

Another new wrinkle is the randomizer, a device that chooses passengers for secondary screening. Many larger airports already have randomizers. London's doesn't yet, but likely will.

A CATSA media spokesperson told me the randomizer is perceived as being more objective than a person. The test, of course, will be if passengers really believe they are being chosen at random.