Our editor in chief couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing as he made one of his regular trips through airport security recently: is one of the most tiresome travails of modern travel being revolutionised?
On a recent trip through Portland Airport (PDX) I was welcomed for my early-morning flight to San Francisco with the usual barking from the security staff manning the various screening devices. As the crowds shuffled into position it was clear that everyone had tuned out the recurring set of commands and were going about the usual routine. Phones came out of pockets, liquids came out of bags, laptops were tucked under arms. Everyone knew the drill and was doing their best to make things run smoothly at 06.15.
As I fell into line I noticed two things were happening a bit further along the conveyor belt. First, it was moving unusually fast and the TSA folks were yelling different commands, which was causing a mix of delight and confusion. “Ladies and gentlemen, please leave all things in your bags. I repeat, leave all things in your bags. Please take all items out of your pockets but you can leave your jackets on. I said, leave your jackets on.” This from the guard in the saggy trousers near the X-ray machine.
As the most-prepared people stuffed all their items back into their bags, their actions were accompanied by a flurry of questions. “You mean I don’t need to leave my toiletries on the tray?” asked a young mum with two kids in tow. “No, ma’am,” said another security staffer. “Just leave it all in the tray and move straight on through. Keep it comin’ folks!”
As I got closer to the front of the queue I dumped everything back in my tote, slipped my jacket back on and walked through a larger, blocky piece of screening apparatus. Not far away some TSA staffers, and perhaps some consultants, were staring at some screens, assessing how well this jumbo piece of kit was doing its job and also dealing with the traffic flow.
“That was a delight – has this machine been here long?” I asked a fellow passenger at the other end of the conveyor. “First time I’ve seen it but I hope they install more of them soon,” said the woman, grabbing her Whole Foods sack and throwing it over her shoulder.
Air-traffic numbers continue to rise and airports struggle with balancing security screening while keeping passengers moving toward their gates. As such, the battle is on to see who can land the biggest contracts for screening hundreds of millions of passengers across airports large and small. I’m not entirely sure how the Portland set-up worked. Was it a funkier version of those stand-with-your -arms-up machines that seem rather useless, as they always demand some kind of pat-down? Or was it incorporating x-ray, sniffer and big-data technology in one seamless package? And was it working or still in the testing phase?
Several weeks ago I passed through a similar machine in Frankfurt but it wasn’t quite as straightforward, as I still had to contend with the painfully slow security apparatus (personnel) that makes Frankfurt one of the more tedious airports to transit. Rather than just walking through the machine I still had to come to a halt, push my arms out to the side and wait for confirmation to move forward to collect my bags.
As I made my way to the gate and looked at all the new Airbuses and Boeings wheeling about the tarmac, new construction work happening across the field and new luxury shops on the verge of opening, I wondered why it has taken the transport industry so long to pull its finger out and look for new solutions to improve the most loathsome part of modern travel. Why not a Europe-wide pre-screening option for those with nothing to hide? Would I trade some personal data in exchange for a snappier path from kerbside to boarding gate? Sure! And why not a screening system that funnels people through different channels based on what they’re carrying, where they’re flying and other security concerns?
Much of this issue seeks to answer questions about how we can make our way around the world more smoothly, economically and gently. We look at the people and businesses who are seeking to up end urban mobility and high-speed rail, and we also speak to a few thinkers who suggest that the future of travel is not going to be quite as autonomous as we’re being sold. And thank heavens.
One area that needs greater scrutiny, however, is security. How do we keep cities safe while not over-reacting with bollards at every turn? How do we avoid fortress-like office towers that inhibit meetings and interaction rather than promoting commerce?
If these topics – including security and anything else to do with life in the city – are of interest, we would love to see you at our Quality of Life Conference. This year it takes place in Zürich, from 28 to 30 June. For more details and to find out how to register, please visit conference.monocle.com.
As ever, cheers and thank you for your support.