The Immediate Future of Passenger Screening

Passenger Screening

In July 2015, I wrote an article ‘The Future Of Passenger Screening’ that reviewed the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Airports Council International (ACI) joint Smart Security project. The idea of the project, according to IATA, “envisions a continuous journey from curb to airside, where passengers proceed through security with minimal inconvenience, where security resources are allocated based on risk and where airport facilities can be optimized.” It is a long-term project and there have been pilots of parts of the process at London, Schiphol, Doha and Melbourne. One of the milestones will be the end of 2017, so I thought it useful to look at where we are with screening.

In the earlier article, I suggested that we should not expect major changes in the short-term but, by the end of 2017, there will be a variation of the model at several airports. Depending on what is considered a variation, that may have been an optimistic view. There have been some changes in ancillary systems such as automatic tray returns, and I do know of the installation of computed tomography (CT) X-ray machines as passenger screening equipment. The CT X-ray machine used at airports is little different to the machines used in a hospital; it has an X-ray head that uses a very narrow X-ray beam that moves around the item being X-rayed, taking numerous ‘slices’ of the item which are stitched together to provide a 3D image of the item. CT machines are used in checked baggage screening because they are quite capable of detecting explosives. One of the other types of X-ray machines used in checked baggage screening are multi-view machines. Think of multi-view machines as CT lite – simplistically, they are several X-ray machines bolted together to give different views of the bag. Rather than a single X-ray head that uses a narrow beam, these multiple images are stitched together by the computer and an algorithm looks for the weapon or prohibited item.

It was an obvious step that checked baggage machines would eventually be used in passenger screening points; they are much more sophisticated machines. However, it is not simply a case of lifting a checked baggage screening machine from the baggage handling system and dropping it into a passenger screening point. The algorithms (the decision-making software) used by these machines as checked baggage screening systems are very different from those needed for passenger screening. Checked baggage screening only needs to find an improvised explosive or incendiary device rather than the diverse list of weapons and prohibited items that need detection in cabin baggage. I had expected that multi-view machines would have been the first choice rather than CT machines given the cost factor.

In my 2015 article, I said that the interesting aspect of the Smart Security concept is the use of risk profiling. I expressed reservations about the ‘known traveller’ process and the sharing of intelligence. I thought it would become a bureaucratic nightmare with ever lowering standards or it would be a little club where a few select countries would exchange information. And I thought that it would end up being torn apart at the hearings following the next major terrorist incident. I still worry about those issues, but I think the result will be less terrorist related and more about facilitation for frequent flyers.

So, do I think there is about to be a generational change in airport security? Quite possibly yes, but I think a major airport needs to be brave.

Consider this: when passengers put their carry-on items onto a current X-ray machine, the belt runs at approximate walking speed and is regularly stopped while the operator checks the image. It can be sent back for rescreening and consequently the throughput rate of a standard X-ray screening point can be relatively low. Because of this, airports often use multiple screening lanes.

That is not how checked baggage screening works. There are variations on a theme but, as an example, the bag is put into the baggage handling system where it is first X-rayed by a multi-view machine and if that machine clears the bag, the bag continues without further checking. However, the machine may send the bag to a smarter CT machine, that may clear the bag. Most bags are cleared by this process. If neither machine clears the bag it is sent to a screening officer for checking and, if he cannot give it the all clear, it goes to a supervisor for a longer look and then, if none of this process clears the bag, it is sent for physical search. It sounds time consuming and very complex, but in reality it is very quick.

Consider this as a proposal. I am not sure how many readers have travelled with Qantas lately, but they now use an automated system for check-in and bag drops for checked baggage at larger airports. Similar systems are used throughout the world. Now think of all but one X-ray being removed from the screening point. A passenger arrives and, if he has carry-on baggage, he goes to a token machine, which may be at the bag-drop point. He enters the number of bags or trays and is issued a token. His items are then placed in the automated bag drop. Once in the baggage handling system, the carry-on items are treated differently to checked baggage; they may use the same machines, but the algorithm is different and rather than being sent to the baggage make-up area they are sent to a collection point inside the sterile area where the passenger’s token allows him to collect his items. The passenger sees none of this; he puts his bag into a very nice collection point and, retrieves it from a very nice collection point. Very few bags will need physical searching.

After dropping off his bag, the passenger walks to the screening point that now consists of a series of lanes using body scanners rather than walkthrough metal detectors. Modern body scanners process passengers quite quickly.

There will still be a need for a standard screening point for people who have a medical (or other) reason that precludes the use of the body scanner or to clear items that they forgot to put through the automated system or that were found by the body scanner.

Would this system be quicker? Probably. Maybe not initially, but in a brief time passengers would become used to the system and it would move quite quickly.

Would it be more cost effective? This depends on how cost is quantified. The equipment is going to cost more, it would likely release more space at the passenger screening point and make the movement of passengers through the screening point quicker (no pulling out laptops and so on), there would be fewer screening staff and overall the passenger experience would be better. The downside for passengers is that every bag going into the cabin would be weighed and could be measured, so no taking oversize or overweight items into the cabin – sorry!

The important question – would it be more secure? Absolutely. This system would almost invariably detect prohibited items and especially improvised explosive devices (IEDs), something that is currently problematic.

Considering the recent events in Manchester, an enterprising company could use a portable variation on this theme for venues like sporting events and concerts.

Do I think that the IATA/ACI Smart Security project is on track? Probably not! It is getting there, but I do not see movement in the major part of the concept – risk assessments. Rather, I see that becoming more difficult as countries like the US tighten their borders. Richer countries will introduce multi-view machines and CT machines to airport screening points by 2020, but even then I am unsure it will be to every screening point. There will be more use of automated tray returns and intelligent conveyor systems, but not their widespread introduction. Would I like to see my suggested system trialled? Yes, but I cannot think of a single airport brave enough to try. Pity.

Steve Lawson
Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. He is a director of AvSec Consulting, which provides aviation consulting, along with tailored travel and security advice for individuals and organisations ( Steve can be contacted via email or on 0404685103.