Ontario, CA Aiport Allows Non-Passengers To Meet You At The Gate, But Why Do We Have Security Lines At All?

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The regional airport in Ontario, California (near Los Angeles) recently announced it would allow non-passengers through security to say farewell and meet people at the gate. This was a common thing before it ended on 9/11/2001, but it’s back.

The program requires the non-passengers to apply for a pass, though this can sometimes be arranged same-day. This ability ended after 9/11 both because of paranoia about security, and also because with the longer security lines which arose in the wake of that event, you didn’t want to be waiting in a long line behind people who weren’t actually flying.

Presumably Ontario airport will only issue these passes when security lines will be short. Airports know exactly how many people are flying at any given time and can predict the load at security. They can limit passes so that they don’t overload security and can presumably even temporarily deny passes if surprise lines arise.

Aside from the personal touch that came from being able to greet family at the gate, or to sit with them while waiting for their plane, in the past this was also used by limo drivers and a few others. It was also possible, when doing a layover, to have a meeting with locals in the airport lounge or other venues past security, which was actually very handy, since the connecting passenger doesn’t want to risk going out and in or such meetings. Last week I had a 5 hour layover in the nightmare that is Amsterdam’s airport and local friends advised it was too risky for me to come meet them. (The Star Alliance lounge was also closed half the day due to staff shortages.) Indeed, airline lounges used to have bookable meeting rooms for just this purpose. ONT airport is not so commonly used for connections, however.

Parents of children flying alone were always allowed to get a gate pass, but this is a rare exception.

Why are there airport security lines?

As noted above, airlines and the TSA know exactly how many people are flying at any given time and how many will go through security. Flight delays and changes may alter that, though they only change the security load if passengers are warned many hours in advance, and as such even these surprises get a fair it bit of warning. As such it could be possible to allocate resources so that lines are a rare thing. The fact that lines are hard to predict by passengers forces many passengers to waste large amounts of time getting there early, “just in case.”

(Some long security lines are caused by decisions to increase security to do additional checks. This is often planned in advance — but must be kept secret — but also sometimes happens due to unexpected events.)

Consider some of the following modern technologies available:

  1. Automatic, secure gates (now used for passport control, immigration and board pass scan in many airports.)
  2. Reliable remote video links to the person viewing the X-ray images, body scan images, boarding passes and IDs and the person assisting people in loading the belt doesn’t have to be physically at the machine
  3. Most people having smartphones with them with apps (and their boarding pass) or the ability to loan other passengers a device to manage their journey.

The main bottleneck at any security station is the luggage X-ray machine. These have an inspector at each belt who takes care with each bag, sometimes sending it back and forth. The belt is moving forward only a small fraction of the time, and this is the chokepoint that causes the line. Delays for secondary screening also exist, and much more rarely there will be lines for the body scanners, particularly the ones that take nude photos of the passengers with THZ waves or backscatter X-rays.

An obvious answer with today’s technology is to not have the X-ray bag inspector physically at the machine, but rather have them be remote with a reliable data link. In such a system, there can be a pool of inspectors, either in a central room at the given airport, or in nearby airports, or at high load times, even in remote facilities. (For security reasons they can’t be at home, unfortunately.) When passenger demand was high, multiple inspectors could be working the same belt, allowing the belt to move nearly non-stop. Rather than assigning inspectors to a given station for a shift, they would be allocated one bag at a time. Those who would be idle would instead be working remotely on busy stations. One inspector could be physically present but also scanning bags from other stations in the same airport or other airports when their station is idle.

While the use of long distance links creates risks of data outages, inspectors could also work across time zones. Inspectors in New York could handle the morning rush there, and then work on the morning rush in later time zones to keep those belts moving. While the data links would be designed with redundancy with many backups, there would also need to be a plan to revert to the old system in the event of a rare system failure. Fortunately the bandwidth required is not large.

Stations would, of course, still need some physical agents to do pat-downs and secondary inspections, and for the rare times physical arrest is needed. However, those who look at personal body scanners (who are already partly remote) could be even more remote, as could agents who check ID and boarding passes. Many airports around the world already use automatic gates for things like boarding pass checks and passport checks. And yes, even the agent who watches people put things on the belts and gives them assistance could be remote, though some level of physically present agents are obviously needed. (It also means you can quickly swap in an agent who speaks a passenger’s language or have machine translation available.) Idle agents, however, should be able to go to a station and assist at other terminals or airports.

There is also the ability to increase security. When the load is low, bags selected at random can be inspected by two or even more different inspectors at the same time. In fact, that’s always a good idea, even if it’s only one bag in 50, to put extra fear onto those attempting to breach security. Agents can more easily take breaks as well.

Appointments at security

For passengers, the unpredictability of security lines means they care more about when they have to get to the security line than when their plane boards. Agencies could allocate guaranteed appointments at security which are assigned to be only a short time before boarding (taking into account walking time, passenger tastes and a small buffer to handle unexpected events.) Appointments would only be allocated to be easily handled by the available agents and inspectors, with capacity left over for those who don’t get an appointment and must wait in an (ideally short) line. The airline would assign the appointment as soon as it assigned you to a flight. While the buffer time might be annoying in order to handle unexpected events, it will surely be less than the amount of time they advise today, which can be a ridiculous 3 hours before a flight in some cases.

Appointments can’t solve everything on their own. Whether a passenger will need secondary screening of bags, or of their person, is hard to predict precisely. If you want to do surprise extra scrutiny it’s hard to keep it a secret if you space the appointments further apart. You may only offer them to elite or precheck passengers (who already get shorter lines but not always.)

Airlines usually ask passengers for how many bags they have when they check-in online, and some airlines now let people print their baggage tags at home or from a kiosk in the departure area. Print-at-home should become the norm, reducing lines at baggage check as well. Once again the airline knows in advance how many bags and people will come, and even with cancellations they can model it some time in advance. They also could do a lot with telepresent staff who are distributed where the traffic is high. Those who don’t tell the airline how many bags they need, or if they have special requests would have to go into an “unexpected requests” line and they should allocate more time — as everybody has to allocate today.

All of this would, of course, make the experience more impersonal. That seems a small cost to avoid the nightmare that airport lines have become. Most of the time, the experience should involve showing up at a self-serve baggage drop before the baggage deadline (if you have bags) with tags already on your bags, then going through security for an appointment not too long before boarding begins.

A lesser version of appointments can be a virtual queue. With a virtual queue, people don’t line up in a giant line, they just use a small device they are handed (or an app on their phone) similar to what restaurants do. The people wait scattered around the airport and are warned when to get in the actual checkpoint line. They are not admitted to that line unless called. This fixes one of the major flaws of airport security lines, namely that terrorists can bring bombs to them and harm the large crowd there — larger than the number of people on a plane sometimes — and by definition the people waiting for security are not fully screened, though some airports do pre-screening at the door. If there’s a 30 minute security line, people can relax elsewhere for 25 minutes of that. Of course, best not to ever have that 30 minute line!

The non-passengers could also participate. If they are smart, and leave their own personal bags behind (or perhaps put them in a locker, though most airports got rid of lockers due to bomb risk) they could go through security without needing to put anything in the X-ray, only walking through the body scanner and showing their pass at an automated gate.

It would also be worthwhile for airside connecting passengers wishing to visit the landside. Airside passengers would put everything except their ID, wallet, phone and clothes into an airside locker (no problem with lockers there) and get a return appointment for “no-bag security” if a slot is available. They could then easily visit the landside without fear of it taking time to return to the airside.

We’ve made air travel a nightmare in the past few decades. So much so that many people would consider a 3 hour high speed rail trip similar in duration to a 50 minute flight. (The rail trip is also more comfortable, of course, but even so this should not be a comparison.) But it’s a self-inflicted nightmare, with surprisingly little effort to fix it. Perhaps that can change in the years to come.

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