TSA testing translation devices at Philadelphia checkpoints

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers are testing a new hand-held language translation-interpretation device at Philadelphia International Airport security checkpoints.

The devices help TSA officers make the security checkpoint experience more pleasant for passengers with limited English and others who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or have low vision.

The device is smaller than a mobile phone and contains a library of 83 languages. A TSA officer or a passenger speaks into the device and it translates the message into the language selected. The device will audibly repeat the message into the chosen language for the passenger and it will appear on the screen for them to read if they are deaf or hard of hearing.

The goal of the trial is for TSA to evaluate the viability of these devices by assessing the ease and effectiveness of use and its impact on checkpoint operations.

TSA has deployed five units to be used at checkpoints in Philadelphia’s international terminals A-East and A-West, and also at its busiest checkpoints in terminals B and DE.

The units are rechargeable and work via Wi-Fi or data connection. So TSA can move them to any checkpoint lane where they are needed. That agility is extremely valuable to the TSA.

Gerardo Spero, TSA’s Federal Security Director for Philadelphia International Airport:

“We hope that this will turn out to be a valuable tool for our officers to provide guidance to passengers who might not speak English. For example, it will help us to explain in the language that the traveler understands, that we may need to open a carry-on bag for a search.”

In the time the units have been in use, TSA has seen their benefits as well as a few challenges, such as the use of colloquialisms. For example, the term “pat-down” does not translate accurately into all languages and instead, TSA officers may need to use different words to explain that a pat-down needs to take place.

TSA can pre-program common advisements that TSA officers use in typical checkpoint conversations. The device can keep up to 10,000 translations that are “favorites” and commonly used. Software updates can be downloaded to add languages and words to the vocabulary library.

Some foreign languages have specific dialects and other nuances. For example, the units distinguish four types of Spanish–that spoken in Spain, Argentina, Columbia or the United States.

Checkpoints can be noisy places TSA officials have learned that enunciating words into the device is important. For example, the unit may mistakenly translate the words “your coat” into “you’re a coat.” It is this type of information that TSA is gathering to help determine how to work around the ambient noise issues of a checkpoint.

Jose Bonilla, TSA’s Executive Director of the agency’s Traveler Engagement Division:

“The field testing of these units is one step that we are taking to improve our communication with a broader traveling population and further enhance the customer experience.

“The results of this field test will allow us to evaluate the viability of a small, stand-alone communication device at our checkpoints by assessing the ease and effectiveness of use and its impact on checkpoint operations.

“This has potential to be a game-changer for travelers who are not fluent in English who come to our checkpoints. It will ease their travel experience. Already we are seeing a positive impact.”

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Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)