The Mystery of the TSA’s Rapiscan Whole Body X-Ray Scanners

This is what the Rapiscan Whole Body Xray radiation machines look like - see below for an L3 Pro-Vision picture

Maybe I’ve just been fortunate in my choice of airports I’ve flown in and out of, but, in airports that have the X-ray whole body radiation scanners, I’ve noticed that most of the time, few or none of them are in use, while the good old fashioned metal detectors are still being used alongside them.

Sometimes the Rapiscan machines will even be turned on, but they’ll be roped off, and people will continue to go through metal detectors instead.  Other times, the Rapiscan units are just sitting there, dead.

There are two main types of whole body scanner these days.  The L3 Pro Vision millimeter radio wave ones seem to have a higher level of use, but the Rapiscan type Xray radiation scanners seem to be little used.

I’m curious about this.  Why is the TSA spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the Rapiscan radiation machines if they are not using them all the time once they have been acquired and installed?

After all, the TSA would have us believe two very dubious things – first, that they do not give us a potentially dangerous dose of X-rays, and second, that they do a better job of detecting things on our person than metal detectors.


This is an example of the less controversial L3 Pro-Vision Whole Body Scanners

If these claims are true (and most informed people view them as laughably false) then isn’t the TSA being remiss in not using them as much of the time as possible?  Isn’t it honor bound to use the best equipment it has at airports to best protect us?

I plan to ask the TSA about this, but first would appreciate any feedback you can offer about the extent of this pattern of apparent abandonment of the Rapiscan units.  What has your experience been going through airports with the Rapiscan scanners over the last few months?

Please let me know, either by email, or in comments below, if you’ve gone through an airport that has the Rapiscan type scanners, and, if so, if they were all in use with no metal detectors being used, if some were in use and some metal detectors in use too, or if none of the Rapiscan X-ray radiation machines were being used and only metal detectors were being used.

If you like, you can also share your experiences with the less controversial L3 Pro-Vision scanners too so we can compare Rapiscan use with L3 use, but it is primarily the usage pattern for the Rapiscan units that I’m most interested in.  I have some theories about this, but would like to have some more solid data before leaping into the deep end.

Many thanks for any help you can provide.

9 thoughts on “The Mystery of the TSA’s Rapiscan Whole Body X-Ray Scanners”

  1. I see them in use about 80% of the time — however as they take 3 – 4 times longer, often the metal detector is also in use right beside when the line backs up — travelers directed randomly to one or the other.

  2. David,

    I have never been thru one of the Rapiscan scanners and can honestly say I have never seen one at any of the airports that I have traveled.

    I have seen and used the Pro-Vision scanners and must admit I am not a fan. They require you to empty everything from your pockets(i.e. handkerchief, papers, passport, etc.) along with your belt. Their thruput is definitely less than with the traditional metal detectors and it is a real pain to gather everything back into its place.

    My observation is that at some of the busier airports TSA tries to use the scanner but quickly reverts to the metal detector as they see the lines back up.

  3. David,

    As a skin cancer survivor I avoid these scanners and their radiation.

    I get to the airport early enough so I can get a “pat down” if there aren’t any “scanner free” lines. Interestingly enough when I am directed to go thru one of them and refuse saying I have had cancer the TSA “Officer” never gives me a hard time actually seeming to understand my reluctance.

  4. In CLT you can see the Rapiscan in use, so we just go to another checkpoint that doesn’t have one. They are easy to avoid.

    We ALWAYS opt out of Rapiscan but rarely see them anymore. TPA use the magnetic scanner so no radiation.

  5. David,

    I fly most frequently out of Chicago O’Hare (ORD), on AA, using Terminal 3 at ORD.

    At this terminal, the TSA machines do not resemble either of the examples appearing in your above bulletin.

    Most TSA security lanes at ORD T3 have a full body machine that must be of a different make or model than either machine you have shown above. I believe the ORD T3 full body machines use x-rays, but I am not certain as to that.

    The machines have a left and a right half. The halves are concave. The person being examined enters the machine, does a left-face turn, places his/her feet on footprint outlines, then puts both arms over hos/her head. There are no front or rear doors or access hatches to the machine.

    Most ORD T3 TSA checkpoints also offer some lanes in which the old magnetic metal detectors are in use, instead of the full body machines. Assignment of the passenger to one lane or another, with the varying types of machines in use, seems to be a random procedure.

    Hope this info is helpful to you. == CRD

  6. I’ve been recently through Oakland, CA where the X Ray machine is in use. I opted for manual screening instead, which request was received graciously.

    All other airports I have been through are using the other machine.

  7. I recently flew to Las Vegas from Phoenix. In Phoenix, the full body scanners were in full use … I didn’t see any of the lines using only metal detectors. TSA was having everyone empty everything out of their pockets “in case you are selected” for the full body scanner. Then they proceeded to “select” everyone. I opted instead for the “pat down”. When departing Las Vegas, however, all the lines seemed to be using the metal detectors, and the body scanners were sitting empty.

  8. We usually fly out of Washington Dulles (IAD) where most but not all of the security lines have the magnetometer (metal scanner) AND the Rapiscan devices. We do our best to select a line that has the magnetometer only and usually are successful. I hang back and let other folks behind me go, while my husband walks through first and does not set off any alarms. When he gives me the high sign that he is safely through then I send my purse and the computer through and inform the TSA employee at the magnetometer that I have an artificial knee. They wave me to come ahead and of course I set off the alarm, so they offer me the Scanner which I nicely say I don’t want. They then call out “Female assist!” and pretty soon a woman in TSA uniform comes over to conduct the patdown. Before starting she almost always asks if there is someone with me to watch for my valuables, which I think is very thoughtful.

    They also offer a private room for the patdown but I always refuse — I don’t tell them this but my reason is because I want to remain in sight of all the other travelers — with their cell phone cameras — just in case a TSA person might inappropriately start trouble because their power goes to their heads. Safety in numbers and all that… I chat cheerfully with my ‘patter’ while she’s doing it and then, after her rubber gloves show no traces of explosives, I am released to join my husband who has collected our valuables from the conveyer belt.

    I have some sympathy for the people who must do the patdowns and have always been well treated. (It probably helps that I am a 75 year old ‘grandmother type’.)

    Of course it is all 100% ridiculous mere “security theatre.” Intelligent profiling could make a difference, but the current system is totally bogus.

  9. I opted out of the scanner in Fort Meyers and was graciously treated. My luggage was opened and wiped down with the gloves and so was my body. Unfortunately, when the TSA agent put the gloves under the light to see if there was any residue, there was a positive indicator. I had to go into a private room for a more thorough pat down and my luggage more thoroughly gone through. I passed and she told me it might have been my sunscreen that gave a false positive. I am getting ready to opt out at Dulles so am searching for experiences. In Philly, I had an embarrassing experience so am hoping Dulles is kind: PS I’ve had melanoma three times so try to avoid any sort of radiation if possible.

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