The end of the airport security nightmare?

The fact that extremists chose airports as their soft target for attacking Western civilisation in 2001 has changed air travel for the foreseeable future.

While technology makes spectacular strides in making human life easier, human evil means that one of the experiences that’s ripe for automation must remain a clunky stresspit where people are subjected to real, flawed interrogation to ensure they don’t have malevolent intent.

It doesn’t help that, after September 2001, airport security was left to a designated government monopoly in each country that, more or less, made up the rules as it went along.

Public support for a massive public safety initiative was assumed but, governments being what they are, the result sometimes left a lot to be desired.

Does it have to be like that? Well, in one part of the world, there are at least trials underway to see whether the whole airport security system can be delivered without the mind-bending stress that can beset travellers being fed through the system.

Details of the pilot program, at Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, airports – major hubs for American Airlines and US Airways (respectively), which are, as it happens, in the process of being merged – are fascinating.

With mood lighting and soothing piped music, the new checkpoint has leather couches and chairs in the area where the queue starts. Instructions delivered over the sound system replace the need by security screeners from the Transport Security Administration to give orders.

Video monitors deliver airport messages (along with advertisements), while displays provide supposedly accurate waiting time forecasts.

Plastic bins for personal belongings are 20 per cent larger than the existing trays so people won't use as many.  

At the airside end of the screening area, there is a new "recompose'' zone, complete with couches, high-top tables and foot bars for tying shoes, a big floor lamp and a mirror, aids to help people get dressed again.

The whole system is sponsored and paid for by a hotel company, Marriott's SpringHill Suites, which has its logos displayed prominently.

"Travellers don't want to be lined up and treated like check-in at Attica (prison),'' Joseph Ambrefe, chief executive of SecurityPoint, the company that designed the system, told the Wall Street Journal. "Why shouldn't the checkpoint be outfitted nicely instead of with government yard-sale gray benches?"

Dallas-Fort Worth airport planning executive Bob Blankeksip is similarly hopeful the new system will help soothe travellers’ jangled nerves.

“We want to think about it as a service instead of a governmental gap nobody touches and everyone tolerates," he said.

Will the idea ever catch on outside America – assuming the system is trialled successfully over the next year or so?

In Australia, there are certainly none of the incentives that exist in America.

For a start, most major American airports are owned by the municipal governments of the cities they serve. There is a direct incentive for the airport to be as welcoming as it can be.

Australia’s capital city airports have no such incentive.

And the idea of co-operation between a large government bureaucracy – the Australian version of the Transport Security Administration is simply a division of the Department of Infrastructure – and a tourism business like a hotel chain is virtually unheard of.

Here, there appears to be no official view about this imposition on the lives of the millions of Australians who subject themselves to it every year except that it will continue for the foreseeable future in its present form.

In your view, is there room for the airport security system to be made less of a pain? Have you actually been to an airport in your travels where security wasn’t a drag?