I flew to Switzerland last week, on my way to see some of ESA’s latest satellites. Security was, as always, a trying experience. Belt off, little plastic bag of tiny toiletries carefully placed separately, step through metal detector, inexplicable beep, shoes off, frisk down, and then Oh, sir, I need you to empty your bag so we can swab it down.
Turns out that I’d completely forgotten a small tube of lip balm that had tucked itself into a corner of my bag. Oops.
Now, I don’t particularly mind the security palaver. It doesn’t take that long, it isn’t actually designed to be annoying, and I’ve hardly ever encountered the more officious variety of airport security staff. But judging from the sighs and tuts from the queue behind me, many do. And those, we now know, include the chairman of British Airways, Martin Broughton.
As we’ve seen reported this morning, Broughton told a conference of UK airport operators yesterday that Britain should ‘stop kowtowing to American security demands’ and stop the more intrusive and, as he put it, redundant checks currently imposed before flights. He singled out shoe removal, pointing out that this isn’t demanded for US internal flights, and pointed out that there’s no consistent policy for the new branch of the computer family, Apple iPads, and other tablet computers.
Broughton has a point. It’s understandable but has always seemed odd that security demands respond to the last terrorist threat; the (unsuccessful) shoe bomber led to us struggling with laces, and the (unsuccessful) liquid bomb plan resulted in that pesky 100ml-only rule and the ritual of the ziploc bag. I suppose we should be thankful that there aren’t any new underwear-search rituals.
In an area where rapid reaction is the order of the day, it’s not surprising that engineering and technology can’t keep up, and that new searches are therefore ordered on top of existing ones. Moreover, advances in scanning have led more to controversy than to a feeling of safety, as with the new ‘naked image’ scanners now being introduced.
But it should be possible for technologists to develop security methods which maintain, or even increase, the level of vigilance while reducing the intrusiveness of the security search. There needs to be a rethink of security to decide what searches are actually needed, and how best to conduct those searches. Passengers are less likely to object to security procedures if they are rational and, preferably, quick.
After all, have those shoe scans and separate toiletries bags ever actually found anything?