Every business traveler knows time-tested ways to get through security fast –slip-on shoes, pre-packed liquids in a regulation-size plastic bag, a wheelie case with a front pocket for your laptop so you can whip it out when you need to, and access to the fast-track lane. But even then, it can be a stressful, time-consuming experience. One of the biggest complaints we hear on our online forum (businesstravelerusa.com/ discussion) is a lack of consistency. While at O’Hare you cannot take liquids over 100ml through, in other parts of the world your 500ml bottle of water is not a problem. And then you arrive somewhere like Male International airport in the Maldives to find that not only are idols for worship and spear guns banned, but pornography and alcohol. (Better be careful what you pack…)
While it might seem a good idea to have one set of rules that apply to every airport, even if this was a realistic objective, Peter Morris, chief economist for aviation information organization Ascend, is not convinced it would be a solution. “It is like the old Chinese curse, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ because if one raises the issue of more consistency, you can be sure it will be a leveling up to a level of intrusion and unpleasantness that will be unspeakable,” he says. “I think inconsistency – to an extent – is sometimes down to a level of sensible flexibility.” In other words, it can work in your favor.
Of course, we are more likely to come up against security staff waving the rulebook than not. Morris says: “We surveyed business passengers and their concerns about security weren’t focused on the absence of it, but the excessive presence of it.” One businesstravelerusa.com poster, azidane, recollects: “I was selected for secondary screening and the customs officer proceeded to go through my bag. He then informed me that he wanted to cut open my suitcase to check for hidden items. I told him I had no problem with that as long as he provided me with a similar suitcase to put my belongings in. He informed me he would not, to which I replied: ‘So am I meant to take my belongings in a garbage bag?’ His response was: ‘Don’t be smart with me.’ This led to a heated argument and eventually a supervisor came over and I explained the situation. He apologized for delaying me.”
In defense of security officers, it is their job to make checks, not to be nice to people. A spokesman for the US Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says that what makes the job particularly tough is “the constantly changing threat environment.”
“As technology and the strategies of would-be terrorists evolve, we must evolve as well,” the spokesman adds. “In fact, it’s not enough to change with the threats – we need to anticipate the nature and origin of potential new threats and stay one step ahead at all times.” No wonder they are stressed.
So what are the authorities doing to improve the security experience? The TSA writes on its web site (tsa.gov): “We are looking at ways to focus resources on higher-risk passengers while expediting the process for lower-risk passengers. If we can learn a little more about each person through information they opt to provide, and combine that with our other layers of security, we should be able to expedite the physical screening for many people. While nothing would ever guarantee expedited screening – we must retain an element of randomness to prevent terrorists from gaming the system – this holds the potential to change the travel experience significantly.”
One of the “expediting” measures the TSA started trying out at the end of last year was an initiative called Pre Check, designed to speed up screening by offering US citizens that the TSA deems to be low-risk the chance to register information about themselves before they fly.
Participating airports include Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, JFK, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles International and a dozen others on select airlines. But passengers have to wait to be invited by the TSA to take part – the spokesman says about 2,000 people a day have been signed up so far.
Once they have provided the information and been approved, they are issued with a barcode on their boarding pass, which means they are eligible (but not guaranteed) to pass through a fast-track security lane without having to take off their shoes, belts or jackets, or remove laptops. TSA promises the initiative will roll out to another 20 US airports by the end of the year.
Another recent innovation is X-ray and millimeter wave body scanners, introduced about two years ago. They have been beset by controversy about the “naked” images they create and the amount of radiation they expose people’s skin to. Last year, a report published by non-profit US media organizations Propublica and PBS claimed that between six and 100 airline passengers (out of 100 million) could get cancer from the X-ray backscatter machines each year. The US Food and Drug Administration says the risk of getting cancer is one in 400 million.
With 2.8 billion people flying every year, many of us will feel uncomfortable about those odds. But in the UK, the Department for Transport (DfT), which is responsible for setting airport security rules above and beyond the EU’s minimum standards, has deemed them safe. Peter Kant, executive vice-president for body scanner manufacturer Rapiscan, was reported by Wiredmagazine to have said, “You get twice as much radiation when eating a banana.” The TSA is similarly confident: “These machines are safe for all passengers. Each scan is equivalent to the naturally occurring radiation a passenger receives during about two minutes of flight at altitude.”
In November, it was reported that the European Commission had banned X-ray scanners until further trials had taken place. But the DfT says this was an exaggeration and they were merely “not approved by the EC for primary screening until they had done further tests.” So far, no UK airport has used any kind of scanner for primary screening, only secondary (when a metal detector beeps to alert screeners that the person needs to be checked again). So X-ray scanners are still being used at Manchester, and millimeter wave scanners at Heathrow and Gatwick.
Following the backlash against the imagery scanners produce, the TSA has installed privacy protection software on all of its airports’ 260 (and counting) millimeter wave machines, which replaces the actual image of a traveler with “a generic outline of a person.” It also allows passengers to look at the image it creates, whereas before it was only viewable by a security officer in a private room.
The DfT says UK passengers are beginning to see this too, with images verified by computer to “remove the human element.” Heathrow writes on its web site (heathrowairport.com) that it has equipped most of its scanners with “automated threat detection” software to create “generic stick-like figures” that you can see when you exit the machine.
However, Ascend’s Morris remains unimpressed by body scanners. “I have never seen a bigger waste of money,” he says. “I went through one and then the guy went ape about me not having turned out my pockets – I took a picture after to show the threat posed by four tissues, a card I’d just been given for Hooters, and a ticket for an Elvis show.”
Even if body scanners become more ubiquitous, frisking will continue to be employed. But this, too, has caused a stir with passengers – particularly in the US, where they are subject to “enhanced pat-downs” if they refuse a body scan – claiming they are too invasive.
Some have even asserted that they have been sexually assaulted. So what is an enhanced pat-down and is it possible that anyone could have been assaulted as a consequence?
“Unlike in the US, over here we have a ‘no scan, no fly’ rule – you can’t have a patdown instead,” according to a DfT spokesman. “In the US they give people the option. If you were to give someone a pat-down that gave the same level of security and confidence [as a body scanner], it would be much more intrusive – a very detailed hand search, which could involve the loosening or removal of clothing.”
The TSA says: “If a passenger chooses not to use our advanced imaging technology [body scanners] we still have a responsibility to do additional screening and that is where the [enhanced] pat-down comes in. For security reasons I can’t go into exactly what that constitutes, but it is certainly thorough and is designed to determine whether a person has potential explosives, weapons or other dangerous items hidden under their clothing. Any time an individual issues a complaint, we take it very seriously and it is properly reviewed.”
For those willing to embrace the path of science fiction, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) put forward an idea last summer that could revolutionize airport security – the Checkpoint of the Future (CoF – visit iata.org for more information). Based on biometric data such as fingerprints and iris/facial recognition, passengers would be directed to one of three channels –“known traveler,” “normal” or “enhanced security.” The first would be for those who had pre-registered and completed a background check.
Most people would pass through the second lane, while those who needed a heightened level of screening or had been randomly selected would take the third.
Travelers would walk through a corridor of integrated body scanners, X-ray machines and liquid detectors, which would eliminate the need for them to remove clothes, take out laptops and liquids, or put metal objects in a tray. IATA says the system would employ pre-screening, “passenger differentiation” and behavioral analysis to “identify bad people, not just bad things,” as well as speeding up passenger flow, reducing delays and improving cost efficiency.
“Passengers should be able to get from curb to boarding gate with dignity,” former IATA director-general and chief executive Giovanni Bisignani said in a press release last summer. “That means without stopping, stripping or unpacking, and certainly not groping.” IATA writes on its web site: “Aviation is more secure than in 2001 but at great expense and with far too much hassle. For the $7.4 billion that airlines spend annually on security, the process should be better for our customers.”
The trade body says that along with Interpol, 16 countries have given their support to the new system. A spokesman says: “When fully realized in seven to ten years, the CoF will allow passengers to move smoothly through the security checkpoint without stopping. But IATA does not believe it is necessary to wait seven to ten years for full implementation. As an intermediate stage, changes and improvements can be made to existing checkpoints that could result in as much as a 30 percent increase in passenger throughput rate.”
Good news for business travelers is that restrictions on carrying liquids through European airports will be lifted on April 29 next year, following the installation of machines able to detect liquid explosives. If nothing else, at Heathrow alone, this will save six tons of toiletries and drinks from being confiscated every day.
What about the rest of the world? “Until we can deploy liquid explosives detection capability at every checkpoint lane in the country, liquids remain a threat and the liquid limitations continue to be a key security measure,” the TSA says.
“The threat of liquid explosives is real,” IATA cautions. “Restrictions on liquids and gels in hand luggage should be lifted but artificial political or bureaucratic timelines should not drive this process. It must be a globally coordinated effort so passengers are not faced with contradictory regulations in different jurisdictions.” Until that day arrives, retailers will continue to thrive on selling “travelsize” toiletries.
What are your best and worst airport security experiences? Join the debate at businesstravelerusa.com/discussion
— Jenny Southan
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