PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 20, 2011
Looking to Streamline Airport Security Screenings
By NICOLA CLARK and JAD MOUAWAD
Published: December 20, 2011
Travelers in the midst of another holiday season of shuffling shoeless through seemingly interminable airport security lines may find it difficult to imagine a future where screenings are not only speedy but thorough.
But Kenneth Dunlap, director of security at the International Air Transport Association, a global airline lobbying group, suggested just such a situation, seemingly straight out of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Total Recall.” In it, travelers would stop only briefly to identify themselves before entering a tunnel where machines would screen them for metals, explosives and other banned items as they walked through.
Such a vision may remain just that, a relic from a 20-year-old movie. But with global air traffic approaching 2.8 billion passengers a year and growing steadily about 5 percent a year, industry executives and security experts say a fundamental rethinking of today’s security checkpoints is inevitable.
What is less clear, however, is when — and to what degree — technology, regulation and public acceptance may come together to create nuisance-free security screening worldwide. Moreover, critics of the current system, including aviation security consultants, airport executives and passenger advocacy groups, say the innovations may not be any more likely to thwart a determined terrorist than today’s systems.
As to the air industry group’s idea, “it is a concept that has been growing in popularity,” said Norman Shanks, an aviation security and airport management consultant near London. “Technically, it is feasible. But practically, it’s fraught with problems.”
There is little disagreement over the need for vigilance at airports. But after the British authorities uncovered a plot in 2006 to bomb passenger planes bound for the United States using liquid explosives and an attempt in 2009 by a Nigerian man to ignite a bomb hidden in his underwear, new security measures have proliferated, stretching checkpoint wait times.
According to the airline group, airport checkpoints globally cleared an average of just 149 people an hour in 2011, down from 220 people an hour five years ago. At peak travel periods like Christmas, the number of passengers cleared has slowed to as few as 60 an hour at certain airports.
Many of the technologies that would be needed to drive a reliable walk-through security checkpoint are still laboratory prototypes. Others, like full-body scanners, biometric identification and various liquid and conventional explosives detection systems and even infrared lie detectors, are already in use or being tested in airports. But public concerns about privacy and the potential health effects of repeated exposure to X-rays, for instance, have led many governments to tread carefully.
“With any new technology, you get a certain amount of ‘What is this about?’ ” Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, said in an interview. She said that the 500 or so body scanners in place at more than 100 airports in the United States had recently been equipped with software that generated a generic outline of passengers to protect their privacy. And while she played down the potential health risks linked to certain types of body scanners that use X-ray technologies, she acknowledged that “there is always a certain reticence when radiation is involved.”
To many security experts, however, improving both waiting times and security has less to do with rolling out sophisticated new machines and more with gathering information about passengers before they even arrive at the airport.
In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration has begun to shift to a more “risk-based” method of screening airline passengers, with the premise that the overwhelming majority of travelers pose no threat, yet must still be screened.