Is fast, friendly airport screening on the way?

|     Christopher Elliott     |

FROM impossibly long lines to intrusive searches by humourless agents, today’s airport screening process is a hassle for many fliers.

But the screenings of tomorrow could be unlike anything you can imagine – fast, easy, and maybe even friendly. At least that’s the assessment of experts.

“Look for more automated screening lines at airports,” said Mark Dombroff, an aviation lawyer with the Alexandria, Virginia, office of LeClairRyan. “Look for new technology, which compiles more information faster and involves smaller machines.”

In the coming months, observers say, new biometric and other technology could fundamentally change the way the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) handles screenings. But privacy advocates say technology might create more problems than it solves.

Passengers, meanwhile, have their own ideas about how to fix the TSA – ideas that involve bringing common sense and politeness back to the screening process.

Passengers make their way through a TSA security checkpoint at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. – WP-BLOOM

Even so, it’s difficult to write off the new technology and its promises. Late last year, for example, Delta Air Lines introduced its first “biometric” terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Technology developed with the TSA and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) scans passengers’ faces and verifies their identities. With the biometric ID system, as with TSA PreCheck, passengers don’t have to remove computers from their bags during screening.

In Los Angeles, the TSA and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority began deploying advanced passenger-screening technology last year. The portable terahertz millimetre-wave screening devices can detect weapons and other security threats by identifying objects that block the heat that radiates from the body.

If these technologies catch on, it’s not difficult to imagine a near future without long security lines, invasive searches or full- body scans. The new security checkpoint may not be a checkpoint at all but a secure area passengers walk through without breaking stride.

“With a facial-recognition system, there would be no need for a TSA agent to check your ID,” says Marios Savvides, director of the CyLab Biometrics Center at Carnegie Mellon University. “The system captures an individual’s iris and full face as they walk by.”

That’s an exciting future, and it could happen soon. Outside the United States, biometric technology is common. Andrew Coggins, a professor at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business, just returned from China, and he reports widespread use of biometric technology there to track visitors.

“When I landed in Shanghai, I had to go to a kiosk where fingerprints of both hands, passport, and my photo were all collected,” Coggins said. “From there, I went to immigration control. When I got to my hotel, my picture was taken and matched to the data collected at the airport.”

But is that really what passengers want? Some critics are concerned about the privacy implications of biometric technology. They say federal law offers few protections from or restrictions on the use of biometrics such as facial recognition. Last year, the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking details about the government’s secretive biometrics programme.

Freedom to Travel USA, a group that advocates for travellers, is concerned about this fast-emerging future. It’s pushing for better data security and for new rules governing the implementation of biometric screening to protect travellers from false positive alerts for security threats. It also wants a study on terahertz millimetre-wave devices before they’re installed in airports.

“Travellers should be very concerned with being photographed and scanned at airports – or anywhere else, for that matter, when it is done indiscriminately to the masses as proposed,” said Wendy Thomson, a spokeswoman for the group.

Passengers are also concerned about the practicalities of screening. Customer satisfaction with airports was up last year, according to the latest report from JD Power, a market research company. Overall passenger satisfaction rose to 761 on a 1,000-point scale, 12 points higher than the previous year’s results. That included a jump in passenger satisfaction with security screening, mainly attributable to improved communication and cooperation between airport and TSA staffs, according to JD Power. But passengers said they’re still far from happy with the screening process and see plenty of room for improvement. – WP-BLOOM