Future Directions In Screening Technology

pic2By Steve Lawson.


Since September 11, 2001, the reaction of authorities, especially those in the United States, has highlighted how inefficient passenger screening can severely affect the operation of an airport. Those who travelled in the United States in the years soon after September 11 will remember the lines at screening points. On the positive side, a result of those inefficient times is a desire by all parties to make the security systems more efficient.

To design a more efficient system, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Airports Council International (ACI) have joined in the Smart Security project. According to IATA and ACI, “Smart Security 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 optimised.” It is a long-term project and the first phase is underway at pilot airports. To date, four airports have signed onto the first phase: London, Schiphol, Doha and Melbourne.

So, what is the Smart Security project? Put simply, the first phase is described as integrating new technology, repurposing existing equipment, using known traveller regimes in some countries and networking security systems. After 2017, the project is looking towards the use of better risk assessment methods, greater automation, linking behavioural analysis with known traveller (which is expected to expand across borders) and using technology to monitor screening point performance and better allocation of resources. Beyond 2020, it is expected that passengers will be able to flow through the screening point without stopping, unless the advanced technology indicates a threat.

So, is the project feasible? The first phase is absolutely feasible, but what will happen next? Firstly, do not expect huge changes in the suggested timeframe. That timeframe will, in reality, only allow for the development of an agreed model. By 2017 there will be a variation of the model at a number of airports, but not widespread adoption.

Implementation is likely to be piecemeal; not because there is no desire by airports, but it is simply a factor of history. Before 2001, screening was seen as a necessary evil but, in revenue terms, it was non-productive, so the space allocated was the minimum possible. Given the need for additional room, a full Smart Security model is likely to require a complex redesign of the screening point and possibly the terminal. This is likely to be expensive, so it will need to be integrated into the airport’s master plan.

In the short term, some minor systems may be introduced, such as longer powered conveyors at the front of the point to move passenger items through the process and ‘others’ belts for the movement of trays from the rear to the front of the point. Later, explosive detection systems (EDS) similar to those used in checked baggage screening (CBS) may be integrated into passenger screening points. In the short term, these are more likely to be the automated multi-view (MV) X-ray rather than computed tomography (CT) systems, simply because of costs and space.

The Smart Security concept talks about remote analysis of the X-ray images. That idea has been around since the 90s and is feasible, but there were always questions about cost effectiveness. The major advantages are better staff resource management and an improvement in space. Currently, the X-ray monitor position takes up about 1.5 metres to the side of the X-ray; that 1.5 metres becomes important to increase space for things like body scanners or to widen the lane to allow for better passenger flow. However, the space can disappear when the conveyor is modified to quickly and securely remove bags for further examination. Staff management is a more interesting issue; for example, is using a single operator to monitor multiple X-ray machines an option?

If EDS X-ray machines are introduced, a hybrid remote system could be implemented, where the responsibility for explosive detection is removed from the passenger screening point. EDS machines used in CBS automatically detect explosives and if they cannot clear the bag, it is removed from the baggage flow and a remote operator examines the image. Some airports may retain the X-ray monitor at the screening point to look for firearms, sharps and other prohibited items, but will network the EDS X-ray to the existing CBS network. If the machine cannot automatically clear a bag it can be removed from the flow, examined by CBS operators and, if cleared, returned to the passenger.

There is scope for body scanners to gradually replace walk-through metal detectors (WTMD) as they become cheaper and more efficient, with more an arch design, where the passenger pauses, rather than a cubicle.

Additionally, things like smart gates could be introduced in some airports, especially in Europe and the United States, where passports are checked before the passenger is screened. That requirement is less common in Australia where, generally, screening points are after the passport control. Another noticeable change will be in the aesthetics; passenger screening points will finally become part of the airport ‘experience’ rather than an add-on.

While there will be little generational change in passenger screening equipment, the concept that is different in the Smart Security model is risk analysis. In an earlier article, the author expressed reservations about the ‘known traveller’ process and the sharing of intelligence. He 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. He thought that it would end up being torn apart at the hearings following the next major terrorist incident. Those issues remain, but the result will more likely be less terrorist-related and more about facilitation for frequent flyers.

Using the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Pre P as an example, it allows for a quicker transit through the screening point, among other things, by not requiring the removal of belts, shoes, light outer garments or laptops. However, if screening can be achieved without removing belts and so on, why is it not applied generally? All things considered, the Pre P process is relatively benign; there is little difference to the dedicated screening points available to business class or club passengers. Those business class points are not as busy as general screening points so the process is quicker, but the standard is the same and that is the important point. However, some airports have a dedicated VIP terminal and, in reality, there is no screening. Of particular concern is that some countries may consider VIP terminals as ‘known traveller’. This is not an issue provided they are screened to the same standard as the general population.

Enhanced screening lanes present human factor issues for screening staff, such as the level of staff vigilance depending on which lane they are working. While the Smart Security idea of a risk score is good, it should not be noticeable to the passenger or others. For example: a passenger at the screening point has an average risk score of 6; his baggage is X-rayed and he goes through the WTMD, which is set at an agreed minimum level. The next passenger has a risk score of 8; he may be directed to a screening point where the WTMD is more sensitive or use the same screening point (but the WTMD automatically becomes more sensitive) or be asked to go through a body scanner. There should be no change to the X-ray process, either the X-ray operates correctly and the operators are vigilant or they are not. The passenger should not know if he is being subjected to enhanced screening, nor should other passengers.

Generational change will hopefully come with the introduction of biometrics and behavioural analysis. Not simply at the screening point, but at key points in airports, including the carpark. Automated systems such as voice stress analysers or systems to detect micro-expressions could be used to adjust the risk score of a passenger. Similarly, specially trained profiling staff watching CCTV or walking around the terminal could assess passengers and adjust their risk score accordingly.

It is hoped that the new systems will lead to a more efficient flow at passenger screening points and a better passenger experience, without lowering standards.


Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. As a security executive with Qantas, Steve held a number of senior management roles covering all aspects of aviation security from policy development to airport operations. He was sent to New York immediately following the 9/11 attacks to manage the Qantas response and undertook a similar role following the 2002 Bali Bombings. On his return to Australia, he was appointed Security Manager Freight for the Qantas Group. Since 2007 he has been a Director of AvSec Consulting in partnership with Bill Dent, a fellow former Qantas security executive. Today, Avsec Consulting provides consultants from the US, NZ, ME, Israel and Europe. Steve can be contacted via email at slawson@avsecconsulting.com or on 0404 685 103.

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