TSA using dogs to speed passenger screening at Charlotte’s airport

TSA dog Fable, a 6-year-old black labrador, sniffs for explosives during an exercise at Charlotte Douglas airport.
TSA dog Fable, a 6-year-old black labrador, sniffs for explosives during an exercise at Charlotte Douglas airport.

Next time you go through security at Charlotte’s airport, you might be greeted by a dog.

Officials with the Transportation Security Administration on Tuesday showed off Fable, a 6-year-old black Labrador trained to detect explosives. She’s the first of several canines the TSA will deploy at Charlotte Douglas International Airport as part of a program to improve security and speed up lines.

The TSA has about 230 dogs looking for explosives on passengers and their carry-on items at 42 airports in the country. Charlotte, Baltimore and Minneapolis are among the latest airports to receive the passenger-screening dogs.

The dogs, who will work in three- to four-hour shifts, can detect a variety of explosives and also firearms, according to the TSA. Dogs already are used in the airport by the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department for other jobs such as cargo screening, but this will be the first time travelers see dogs sniffing them.

These dogs add one more layer of security before passengers reach the metal detectors, said Kevin Frederick, federal security director at Charlotte Douglas. They won’t sniff every passenger – they’ll keep their distance unless something arouses their keen sense of smell.

TSA will deploy the dogs primarily in expedited-screening lanes, making them move faster – and potentially accommodate overflow from other lanes.

“She has an amazing sense of smell,” said Lisa Washington, Fable’s TSA handler. “She can pick up the relevant scents from an impressive distance.”

As a demonstration, Fable was placed at Checkpoint E of the airport. Passengers with bags passed her by, some looking pleasantly surprised to see a dog there. But they could tell she was no playmate by the “Do Not Pet” sashes she wore.

A dozen or more went past Fable, who sniffed curiously at a couple of them but mostly stayed in place. When the decoy, a man in a light-blue jacket carrying a brown bag walked past, Fable leaped to her feet and followed him. She jumped up to the bag he was carrying, pinpointing precisely the location of the trace amount of explosive material he was carrying in the exercise. Gotcha.

Washington, the handler, then ordered her to sit, and dropped a red toy, which Fable immediately grabbed with her mouth and began to play with. Reward for a job well done.

Washington and Fable trained together at Auburn University for 12 weeks. Currently, the TSA canine training center is at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where dogs are trained in settings that mimic airport gates, checkpoints, baggage claim areas and other transportation sites.

Fable, like all TSA dogs, lives with her handler full time. “She works so hard,” Washington said, “because she wants to please me and get her toy.”