CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Airport security frustrations

Technology could really shorten those queues...

Written at Copenhagen Airport after a delightfully easy check-in and relaxed period in the airport lounge. Despatched to silicon.com from a free wi-fi site in London the next day.

Over the past few weeks I have been flying in and out of the main London airports of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted heading to continental and international destinations using a variety of airlines. On each occasion I have been subject to the new security regime inflicted by BAA and the resulting long lines of misery at check-in and security.

Each time I pass the pile of confiscated cosmetics and bottles containing everything from water to wine, milk and shampoo, I can't help but wonder about the necessity and effectiveness of such measures given the amount of passenger angst created and sheer time wasted. BAA staff also regularly assailed me to check, at least three times before security, that I have no fluids, balms or other substances in my pockets or hand baggage.

So far I have been lucky in that my checked baggage has not gone astray and at my distant destination the unloading has been well-ordered with first class and business travellers' luggage arriving first, which is in complete contrast to the baggage handling chaos when arriving in London.

But this is not the only noticeable asymmetry! Such is the general crowding at the London airports, and the new pressure on the security and check in staff, there has been a noticeable rise in the level of rudeness of staff and passengers alike. All very sad but very understandable against the general squalor of the terminal buildings, the long delays on the approach roads and the general tension invoked by the whole process.

Once on the flight side of the line people seem to calm down a little and the general crowding thins out somewhat but the overall inadequacies of the facilities, which are fundamentally too small and outdated, do not help.

What a contrast to the return journeys! With spacious, modern, well laid out and orderly airports, rapid and reliable access by road and rail, polite staff and minimal delays at check-in and security. But best of all, a check-in and security regime of six months ago, with no restrictions on hand luggage, fluids cosmetics and other materials - just business as usual.

Recently I boarded at Copenhagen with my computer bag, my clothing bag, all my shaving equipment, aftershave, deodorant, and medications etc, and carried them onto the plane and loaded into the overhead - no worries. Sure they checked that my bag was regulation size, they X-rayed everything but no baggage search, no questioning, no inconvenience. And this has been repeated on my return journey everywhere I have travelled recently.

Contrast this with my outgoing flight from Heathrow Terminal 4. A 45 minute wait on the approach road getting to the airport terminal, followed by a 20 minute wait to get to the front of the line at business class check-in, followed by a direct threat of being made to wait in line for over an hour to check my bag into the hold via the economy line. Ouch! I actually had to argue to get them to check my bag pronto! This tension maker was followed by a fast-track security line so long that it very quickly became slow-track and led to the usual baggage X-ray and metal detector process.

I was later picked out at random for a full shakedown at the boarding gate where security staff emptied my computer bag and pockets. At this point the weary security staff stared at my intentionally placed lip salve, medication, screwdriver and nail file, only to say: "That's fine sir". I felt like a bit of a magician! If you don't want people to see things, put them right under their nose.

What is happening? Are passengers and flights some form of asymmetric threat? Is my volatile and explosive aftershave on the outgoing flight somehow rendered inert upon my return? I don't get it! I just don't see extra security measures abroad. I don't see any extra technology being applied but I do however see the application of common sense, a lack of political correctness and a targeting of human energy at the most likely targets.

I was never a 100 per cent happy traveller and I am even less so now but to earn I have to fly. And being a technologist I know what technology can do. It never tires or goes to sleep on the job and it can help humans be closer to continuously vigilant.

The only innovation I have seen in the UK is a single iris scanner and I hear that finger print scanners are on the way. We'll hurrah! They have been in use in the US and other countries for a long time.

Hopefully these will help speed up the process and cut down on the angst but I suspect nothing will improve much until an investment is made soup-to-nuts across the board from road and rail to buildings and runways, and all with integrated security systems that give more than a passing glance at customers that have become tired and resigned to the lack of foresight and action.

Real security checking will start way back in society before a booking is made, and will include the roads and rail system right though the pedestrian phase, entry, shopping and seating process. Moreover, much of it will need automation if we are to stand a chance of finding the malcontent and misguided who wish to put everyone in harm's way.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

Editor's Picks