Full-body scanners will be installed at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport by the end of the year, with other Alaska airports to soon follow, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
But the security scanners will use technology different from the controversial machines that have raised privacy issues by displaying images of passengers' unclothed bodies.
"The type people are complaining about is not coming to Anchorage," said Lorie Dankers, a TSA spokeswoman.
The new system uses a screen that displays a gray silhouette of a generic human form. The screen is attached to the scanner so passengers, as well as TSA security agents, can see what it revealed after they walk through.
Passengers stand inside the scan machines with their arms raised. If the passenger is cleared by the scan, the screen flashes green with the word "OK." But if the passenger is carrying anything, be it a wallet or a gun, the item will show up as a yellow dot displayed on the silhouette of a human that appears on the screen.
"It's a millimeter wave technology. They bounce electromagnetic waves off the individual, so if there's something on the person it shows up as an anomaly," Dankers said.
The security agent first asks the passenger to remove the item.
"The officer would then do a targeted pat-down of that area to make sure there was nothing additional, no more contraband, and they'd be cleared to proceed," Dankers said.
Dankers said the Anchorage scanners will be deployed in the "coming weeks" but she could not be more specific than to say it will be before the end of the year. The same type of body scanners will be coming to the Fairbanks airport not long after Anchorage and then to the Juneau and Ketchikan airports in turn within the next three months or so.
The new type of scanners are being deployed following uproar over the previous system used in the Lower 48, in which images of passengers' bodies are displayed in a room where a TSA agent monitors them for contraband.
The American Civil Liberties Union has praised the new body scanner system as representing "a significant improvement for privacy over the scanners that reveal naked images to human screeners." But the ACLU said concerns remain.
People will still be subject to TSA's pat-downs if the screen shows an anomaly, although they are to be targeted on the part of the body where it's discovered rather than being a full-body frisking. The ACLU said privacy concerns are particularly strong for people with "anomalies" they can't do anything about, such as prosthetic breasts as a result of a mastectomy.
Anchorage Rep. Sharon Cissna gained national attention this spring after TSA agents at the Seattle airport told her she had to undergo a pat-down after a body scanner revealed an anomaly on her chest. Cissna had breast cancer eight years ago, lost one of her breasts and wears a prosthesis. She refused the pat-down and instead left the airport and opted for a four-day journey back to Alaska that involved renting a car, riding on small plane and taking the ferry.
TSA critics argue the body scanners aren't effective and amount to "security theater." But the agency maintains they are better for security than the walk-through metal detectors and have an ability to detect concealed non-metallic explosives.
Agency spokeswoman Dankers said it's not clear just how many of the new body scanners will be deployed at the Anchorage airport.
She said it will be the primary screening technology at the airport "but not every passenger would go through it every time." Those who don't will go through the existing walk-through metal detectors. Passengers will not get to choose between going through the full-body scanner or the metal detector. If the agent at the security checkpoint tells passengers to go through the body scanner, they either have to do it or undergo a pat-down.