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A rare look behind the scenes: What happens to checked bags at the airport?

Seems simple enough: You check your bag, it's tagged, and an airport attendant carts it off.

What many might not know is that their rolling suitcase or camping sack, along with every other piece of checked luggage at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, travels on miles of conveyor belts, passes through hulking bomb-detecting machines and is seen by no less than a dozen sets of eyes on its trip to the runway.

In a rare tour, Transportation Security Administration officials Tuesday allowed reporters and photographers behind the scenes at the airport, where an extensively automated system — the only one of its kind in upstate New York — sorts luggage and helps TSA agents decide what is suspicious enough to scope out. The tract has been active since 2005 and is slated for an upgrade by 2019 as part of the airport's $65 million renovation.

The automated system both gets passenger's bags through more quickly and adds an element of safety for workers at the airport.

"The likelihood that TSA officers ever have to touch the checked bags is slim," said Lisa Farbstein, a spokesperson.

Of course, the system looks out for passengers, too.

"Nothing's getting on that plane unless we know it's safe," Farbstein said.

Baggage comes in through an opening about 10 feet above the floor of a facility behind the walls near the luggage carousel. It rides the sleek, black folds of the conveyor belts to the screening area, where huge pinball flippers direct traffic to one of the six detectors. The system is usually packed between 4 and 6 a.m.

When a bag enters a scanner, the machine looks at the density and volume of its contents and compares them to explosives. If a scanner detects something suspect, it sends a snapshot to screening agents in a room nearby.

"This machine says, 'Hey, take a look at this,' " said Bob McNally, a transportation manager at the airport.

Agents have about 30 seconds to decide whether to clear the bag or condemn it to a search. After that, the system automatically marks it for search.

The TSA's checked baggage screening network at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport ends with this conveyor, which delivers the screened baggage to the airlines for boarding, on July 25. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

If the bag has been cleared, the conveyor belt carries it up a ramp and on its way. If not, the ramp rises back like a drawbridge and the bag shoots down to the search area.

Only about 10 percent of bags on a given day end up in the search area, said Farbstein.

There, a TSA officer plucks a bag off the belt and takes it to a metal table to be examined. They also have copies of the scanner snapshot, which highlights areas and objects of concern and allows officers to view the images in 3D from top, side and bottom angles. Officers can zoom in on a tagged object and "slice" through it, too, performing a scan within the scan to see what might be inside.

Then, with the spot to look in mind, the officer opens the luggage — if it's locked with a TSA-approved lock, the officer can open it with a master key, but for others the lock is cut off — and finds the item.

On today's tour, one officer, Michael Hughes, dug through studded slippers and clothes to find a bottle of barbecue sauce wrapped in plastic. He swabbed it, pressed his wand into a machine and, when a green message blinked, repacked the bag with a slip telling its owner about the search. The bulk of searches run this way — Webers mustard, Chiavetta's sauce and other regional goods like maple syrup often set the system off.

"Everything that makes Buffalo great, people take with them," customer support manager Brett O'Neil said.

But do you really know what's inside that familiar silhouette? asked Mark Rutecki, a supervising screening officer, as he spun a digital model of a jar on his screen.

"You don't," he said.

Transportation Security Officer Michael Hughes inspects luggage manually in the checked baggage resolution area on the TSA's checked baggage screening network. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

For those concerned about their privacy, O'Neil recommended travelers only pack what they are comfortable with officers seeing.

With an average of 12,000 bags passing through the airport's system each day, TSA officers only spend about three or four minutes with each piece of luggage. But they still need to be alert, even if they most often just find food.

"It's not just a job. You really have to take it seriously," said Jean Dziadaszek, an officer of 15 years.

As O'Neil put it: "What could've this been had we not caught it?"

The airport renovation, the latest step in a 15-year, $400-million master plan by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, will see the screening system become even more computerized. It will mostly be funded by passenger facility charges on tickets, NFTA dollars and, possibly, money from the state.

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