Monday, November 10, 2008

Safety First?

Making your way through security checkpoints in any airport is chaotic, frustrating, and time consuming. The security at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is certainly no different. First you must weave through a roped off maze, intended to shrink the amount of space the line takes up. All the while, you are bombarded with informational signage, “Simplifly: Pack simply and fly through security”, lists of prohibited items and specifications for the size of your carry-on. It is a lot of information that seems to be thrown at you last minute. Then, you rustle to gather your identification and boarding pass for the daunting officer ahead. Once passed him, you are forced to take off your shoes and place them, along with any carry-on items, into a plastic bin that runs through a conveyor belt x-ray machine. The floor is hard, cold tile covered in whatever germs and filth the person before you could have been carrying. Next you are ushered through a full frame metal detector by an attendant as equally cold as the floor. She holds a metal detection wand, just in case you fail to proceed through the full detector easily. Now through the metal detector, you must rush to gather your belongings from the tray and put on your shoes in a timely fashion. This is typically resolved by hopping on one foot while grasping any stationary object to steady yourself, which in turn creates a back up in the line. After all this, you are finally through security and on the sterile side of the airport where you can shop, grab a bite to eat, and wait for your flight to begin boarding. Now wasn’t that pleasant and efficient? Of course!
Pleasant? The abundance of graphic signage, attended to aide the passenger in line, ironically can just confuse them more. Even the plastic bins that go through the x-ray machine carry advertising messages in some airports. Shouting these different messages at them graphically, combined with the stress associated from waiting creates a very hectic environment. The removal of ones shoes and the process of putting them back on creates another dilemma and adds to the calamity of the situation. As Matt Blaze, Associate Professor of Computer Science at University of Pennsylvania states, “There’s no better place to get away with something than a chaotic environment”, proposing that this supposedly secure process is really just aiding those trying to bypass the system. Removing your shoes also brings the issue of hygiene into the mix. Airports are high foot traffic areas, susceptible to an array of bacteria and illnesses. Efficient? Standing in a long line, removing your shoes, waiting for your luggage to scan and the opportunity for officials to scan you can be very time consuming. Airplane passengers often arrive up to 2 hours before their scheduled flight just to allow time to go through security. This just adds to the stressful atmosphere projected in these check points.
Once upon a time, all you had to do to get through airport security was walk through a metal detector. You didn’t need a boarding pass or to take off your shoes. Even baggage scanning was not required in most airports. Airport Security was then regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, a branch of the Department of Transportation that regulated air traffic and kept our skies safe. But all this changed on September 11th, 2001 when four United States Airplanes were hijacked and intentionally crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, causing nearly three thousand fatalities. After this tragedy, Congress passed the Aviation & Transportation Security Act, creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and its three main duties. The TSA was responsible for the security of all forms of public transportation,
established to recruit, hire and train Security Officers for U.S. commercial airports and provide screening of all checked baggage for explosives. In December of 2001, Richard Reid, more commonly known as “the shoe-bomber” brought another security issue to light when he attempted to ignite explosives he had hidden in his shoes and gotten past security. Shortly thereafter passengers were asked to remove their shoes to be scanned along with their carry-on items, bringing the system, which we are now accustom, into effect.
There are, however, new technological solutions to quicken the process. The SmartCheck System, first implemented in February of 2007, scans the entire body to create a contour outline that can examine the exterior frame for guns, bombs, and other explosives. This obviously brings up the question of privacy, practically performing a strip search through a virtual medium. The SmartCheck system has other issues as well.
For example, the system cannot detect anything that may be hidden in body cavities, a likely hiding place for drug trafficking. The machine also generates radiation, but at this point the system is so experimental and the radiation is so minimal that it is the least of their concerns. General Electric (GE) Security has recently created an explosive trace device. The device takes a trace of your finger when you touch a screen and sniffs for over two hundred different chemicals associated with explosive devices. A similar device manufactured by GE, the Trace Portal Machine or “Puffer Machine”, can detect explosives and narcotics by releasing multiple puffs of air on a subject in an enclosed booth. Both seem like good ideas but how much protecting can they really do? The most recent and developed security measure is the Clear system. Clear is an identification system that allows you to go through a separate line with a biometric identification card, in hopes of traveling through security faster. To receive an identification card, a subject must first submit personal information and agree to a background check. Once all their information clears the system they must take an identification photograph, a fingerprint, and an iris scan image. All of this information will be stored on the i.d. card they are given. With this card they can then go through security with a separate kiosk, have no need to take their shoes off, and supposedly get through the check 30% faster than normal x-ray machines allow. But all these technological advancements raise the much bigger problem of privacy and start to infringe on our individual freedoms. The way you choose to travel through security has now become a choice of efficiency or privacy. You can take the longer, more unpleasant approach and wait your turn in line, take off your shoes and bear the chaos. Or you can choose to bypass the line by submitting all your personal information. This option not only calls to question airport security but the very security of our nation. Where do you draw the line between keeping people safe and keeping people free? The issue cannot be solved in an airport or even clearly defined giving the current state world politics are in. That thin line has been walked for generations and just recently, with a more looming threat of terrorism, brought to our attention. For the sake of United States freedom, airport security as a choice is the most effective solution for the time being.
The best solutions a designer can make of the airport security problem ones of general layout and aesthetic concerns. Simplifying the graphics introduced in the area would be a great start. Perhaps presenting the information in a more uniform, organized fashion or reducing the amount of signage would help greatly. The other difficult task would be layout, which would be subject to change depending on the specific airport restraints. Most fully functioning airports were built prior to 2001 and did not allow in their original building plans for the complex security measures we are taking today. A simple solution to the chaos caused in the area would be to spread out the checkpoints- a difficult task though to spread them out enough to reduce clutter but not so much as to reduce security measures. Floor treatments could be added at the shoe removal point in the process to aide in hygiene and comfort. At the end of the security checkpoint, a larger area designated for putting your shoes back on and gathering your belongings would greatly aide in the ease of process. In the end its simple solutions regarding flow, not complicated technological systems that would help the passenger most.


1. Brzenzinski, Matthew. Fortress America. New York: Bantam Books, 2004.
2. Clear. 2007. Verified Identity Pas. 10 Nov. 2008
3. Giblin, Paul, and Eric Lipton. “New Airport X-Rays Scan Bodies, Not Just Bags.” The New York Times 24 Feb. 2007, Section A; Column 3 sec.: 1.
4. Good Thinking. "The Privacy-enhanced SmartCheck System." Weblog post. GizMag.
5. Nader, Ralph, and Wesley J. Smith. Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety. N.p.: TAB Books, 1994.
6. Schiavo, Mary. Flying Blind, Flying Safe. New York: Avon Books, 1997.
7. Sharkey, Joe. “Bad Enough Being Shoeless Bug Just Look at This Decor.” The New York Times 23 Oct. 2007, Section C; Column 0 sec.: 6.
8. Sharkey, Joe. “Finally, a Way to Catch a Flight Without Shedding Your Shoes.” The New York Times 19 Dec. 2006, Section C; Column 1 sec.: 8.
9. Transportation Security Administration. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 9 Nov. 2008
10. Wallis, Rodney. How Safe Are Our Skies? Assessing the Airlines’ Response to Terrorism. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2003.

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