Airport Security Is a Drag

Photo: Creatas

Going through security at U.S. airports is a continuing nuisance. One technology improvement that I saw at Brussels Airport is simple:  the conveyor on which you place your computer, bag, etc., slopes downward toward the x-ray machine, so that there is no need to drag bins and bags along the conveyor. Moreover, there is an adjacent conveyor that tilts backward toward the rear of the belt on which the staff can place a pile of used bins.

These devices save passenger time and are labor-saving for the security company too — no need for the workers to drag the bins by hand or hand-truck to the rear of the belt. Are we slow to innovate (how un-American that would be!) or does cheap semi-skilled labor reduce the incentive to substitute capital for labor?


Being awfully generous with that semi-skilled. I have serious doubts that airport security has ever foiled a single terrorist act.


I used to travel through Brussels airport every week. The downward sloping conveyors aside, it is one of the WORST security check airports I have ever come across. Mind you, worse still is Frankfurt, where the staff are so badly organised they spend approx 90% of their time doing nothing. I once pointed this out to one of them who shrugged and agreed. Maybe they were just matching the customer experience, which involves a lot of waiting time for very little checking time.


I think an issue is that the people that security, the airport facility, and the airline companies are seperated - why do the security folks care about how fast the process the line? They're paid for their time, so they can't work quickly and economize, and they don't take a hit when passengers miss planes or don't have time to do some compulsion shopping in the concourse.

Paul Robichaux

Contrast this with the conveyors at the Southwest Airlines side of SAN: the metal table that leads up to the X-ray machine's belt is angled *upwards* to make it harder to drag items into it. Thanks for that, TSA.


OK, but what I picture is myself awkwardly trying to remove my right shoe while the little bin containing my left shoe drifts downstream.

Chess Piece Face

I'm sure in real life you'd just not put the bin on the track till it was full.

Mark Kerrigan

I used to work at the airport for a summer and what I found slows the line down most is how many people are first time travelers. Anyone who is well practiced and knows what to expect will go through faster. Unfortunately, that type of traveler does not represent the majority of the traveling public.

Eric M. Jones

I surmise that the whole TSA thing is just a way to scare the public into voting Republican. It amazes me that even the people who own airlines don't have sufficient clout to stop the TSA madness.


Actually, in all the US airports I've been to (Boston Logan, Miami, San Francisco, among others), people push their own bags through to the x-ray machines, not airport staff.

So it's not a matter of paying for semi-skilled labor vs. substituting capital, but rather substituting capital for something the airports don't currently pay for! It's free labor.

And if no one has complained, they have no reason to pay extra to change it. You'd be hard pressed to imply that making people go through security faster results in savings for the AIRPORT.


That is the germ of a great idea... why not simply organize the passengers to check each other? They'd have a better incentive to get it right and would follow instructions better than the TSA folks, and probably be much more reasonable and thoughtful about the search.


"Are we slow to innovate (how un-American that would be!) or does cheap semi-skilled labor reduce the incentive to substitute capital for labor?"

This is interesting but perhaps there is no real reason for the difference.

In Japan I often found incredibly well-organised and efficient systems and technology, like ATMs that would give spoken instructions in several languages, alongside highly inefficient or irrational things (the ATMs, for example, were often turned off outside working hours).

Rather than wondering at underlying causes - innovation versus cheap labour - it may simply be coincidence. Someone in the past decided to do things a certain way in Belgium, Japan and the US and each gradually carried on down their different roads. The result is that some areas in each country are unusually efficient, some unusually inefficient and absurd. One of the great things about travelling is that it shows us what our home countries and cultures are doing well, and in what ways they can improve.


Enter your name

Conveyor belts have a very small potential of causing very serious harms (e.g., ripping an incautious child's finger off). I'm honestly not sure that I'd want to increase the general public's exposure to them, for the sake of having the passengers expend fewer calories to move their stuff through a security checkpoint. If it were up to me, we'd speed the line by reducing the amount of stuff going through security (possibly by demanding that airlines accept one piece of checked luggage per ticketed passenger).

Ed Kay

I'm puzzled by this: "Are we slow to innovate (how un-American that would be!)" Perhaps you are a lot older than me (I'm 68). But during my entire adult life, the reluctance and failure, to adapt to innovation has been the defining characteristic in most aspects of American life. Some recent examples: Americans were among the last to ditch cell phone technology in favor of PCS, we were among the last to move to HD television. Even our much vaunted edge in entertainment software technology seems little more than bravado when we see that movies like Lord of the Rings are filmed in New Zealand. Going back a few years, we see that innovations in everything from kitchen appliances to automotive technology to medicine flow from other countries. Instead of trying to reverse this trend, our political leaders reinforce it. Remember Bush II's squelching stem cell research? And Bush I's misguided veto of a health care initiative in Oregon? Just recently reported at this site was Obama's misguided call to move the country to electric vehicles when a more innovative leadership is called for. And this just goes on and on.



The American consumers and Government aside, American corporations have never been slow to innovate!


From all of my experiences with airport security, innovation and efficiency seem to be inversely proportional. Every innovation in airport security seems designed specifically to add time to the process. The reason for this seems to be that each new type of threat elicits a response of adding a new layer of security. So we go from simply walking through a metal detector to having to partially disrobe, remove contents from bags, get patted down, get air-puffed, get x-rayed, and on and on. Add families with children (and all the paraphernalia that seems de rigeur for modern parenthood), lazy TSA employees, people who haven't figured out how to be efficient themselves, and we end up with one giant time suck. Logical and well-planned ideas for cutting down on the waits are doomed to failure because there is absolutely no incentive to change. Customers can't pressure the TSA for change because the solution is "get to the airport earlier" or "making a fuss? Your name is now on the double-secret probation list!" Nobody with any clout within the government is looking at anything other than additional security. The airlines don't really care because air travel is at an all-time high. The only hope for change is that the whole mess becomes such a hassle or that fuel becomes so expensive that people will start flying less and the airlines will look around for ways to attract customers. Maybe then they will hire lobbyists to pressure the government to make changes that will improve the air travel experience.


Steve Bennett

There's nothing remotely rational about the security theatre process in airports in countries like the US. Don't look for it. You'll just do yourself a head injury.