Rethinking airport security

British Airways (BA) chairman Martin Broughton has vented his frustrations about “completely redundant” airport security checks which he believed should be scrapped. He cited practices such as the requirement of passengers to remove their shoes and to have laptop computers screened separately

Mr Broughton’s displeasure seemed to be directed largely at the American administration. Speaking to the UK Airport Operations Association, he said: “America does not do internally a lot of the things they demand that we do.” Apparently, even within the United States, a regulation such as the removal of shoes is not implemented at all its airports.

BA honcho added: “We shouldn’t stand for that. We should say, ‘We’ll only do things which we consider to be essential and that you Americans also consider essential.’”

Supporting Mr Broughton, BAR UK representative Mike Carrivick said the time has come for the industry to “step back and have a look at the whole situation.”

But now, with security concerns about air cargo transportation arising from two recent incidents of toner cartridges concealing explosives being uplifted from Yemen and bound for the United States, Mr Broughton’s voice may be losing its decibel.

Ever since 911 followed by a string of incidents of security breach, innumerable measures have been piled on to make air travel safer but at the same time turn it into a harrowing experience.

Indeed, many measures introduced at airports around the world are American-driven. Some of them are reactionary to a specific incident, such as the attempt by Britisher Richard Reid to detonate explosives hidden in his shoe while on board an American Airlines flight in 2001. Others are blanket catch-all measures such as the restrictions on liquids and gels.

Much of the dissatisfaction expressed by practitioners seems to arise from the inconsistency of implementation and the lack of universal standards that can be applied across the globe. However, the difficulty lies in how some regions and their airlines are more at risk than others. Never mind if Mr Broughton appears to have an axe to grind with the Americans, “essential” is the key word, but the split of opinion among experts on what this should entail has not made the regulator’s job any easier.

Technological advances will displace some of the measures, as when British authorities announced the restrictions of the carriage of liquids and gels may be a thing of the past with new methods being developed to detect liquid explosives. Short of that, it is a gamble on the odds of, say, a Reid-copycat boarding undetected. The real bane of the industry is not a repeat of historical sabotage but surprises.

Airlines are concerned with the rising costs of implementing numerous layers of airport security checks and screening. Ultimately, these costs are passed down to the passengers.

Such costs are largely built in the cost of the ticket and may not be apparent to the passengers, who are quite prepared to accept the heap of inconveniences for a safe flight. Much of the frustration comes from a multitude of non-security-per se issues that beset the implementation and which have added unnecessary stress to the travel experience.

Poor service and the lack of professionalism of security staff top the list. Many agents appear to be inadequately trained and are insensitive to the hassle experienced by the travelers. Some of them seem to think the nastier or more intimidating they become, the better they are at their job. And, yes, the sloppiness of some agents particularly at American airports certainly does not merit the trust and respect they deserve.

The regulators and implementers could do better with providing adequate facilities to cope with the demand. This is most prevalent at American airports – the long snakes of passengers, poor line demarcation, bottlenecks at the checkpoints, crammed spaces, lack of adequate personal privacy when the checks become onerous.

Poor co-ordination between security agents and airlines increases the anxiety faced by travelers – missing connections and flight delays, all the problems arising thereof, among the primary concerns.

Here is an observation made at an American airport. I do not question the agent’s profiling capability in selecting passengers for enhanced scanning, even as I wondered about seemingly innocuous vacationing teenagers with parents or old women in the queue (yes, yes, who knows?) but I am concerned when a passenger can argue his way out of the selection or when some passengers easily switch lines after that point. That’s the biggest challenge facing the industry: the variable human factor. (See Airport Security: Dealing With Human Lapses, Jun 7, 2010)

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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