Jul 272010

Continental Airlines is trialing
self-boarding machines at the gates in their Houston hub.  You put
your boarding pass into a reader and if valid, a turnstile opens to let
you through and onto the plane – a simple and straightforward process.

The value to Continental is that it may save
them a staff member at the gate and also automates/quality controls the
boading pass check.  The value to us as passengers is that
hopefully the auto-turnstiles will not allow people to board before
their turn.

But a 'security expert' complains this new
automated process represents a security failing.  The TSA say it is
not a problem at all.  As you can see in the video accompanying

this webpage
, a former Israeli/El Al security expert says that it
would be possible – even easy – to train gate agents to detect
terrorists trying to sneak onto planes.

I think he is totally wrong about this (just
like he is wrong when he keeps talking about how frequently the US has
been attacked by terrorists, but then cites only three instances in 22+
years).  Gate agents at present can't seem to spot a passenger
'smuggling' two illegally and massively oversized carry-ons onto the
plane, and rarely even stop a passenger boarding before his section is
called.  All they want to do is to get the plane boarded and pushed
back as urgently quickly as possible so they can qualify for their
on-time-pushback bonus.

To think that in the two seconds of contact
the gate agent currently has while grabbing our boarding pass,
scanning/entering it, and returning it – usually with only the very
briefest of glances at us – they would manage to detect terrorists that
have already gone through the longer, more time consuming, and
interaction intensive TSA screening is completely unrealistic.

And to think that the airlines would meet
the extra staffing and training costs so that gate agents would instead
scrutinize us for ten seconds and spend another ten seconds in
conversation with us, trying to spot a potential terrorist – that's also
completely unrealistic.

Lastly, consider this.  So there you
are – you were late to the airport, your first flight cancelled, you
rushed to another gate in another concourse for an alternate flight, and
are now late for an important meeting due to your earlier cancelled
flight.  Behind you is a screaming child.  The terminal is way
too hot and stuffy.  So you turn up at the gate, give your boarding
pass to the agent, and she notices you breathing hard, anxious, and
sweaty.  She says 'I think you are a terrorist' and refuses to
allow you to board.  You miss your flight, which is in turn
delayed, inconveniencing everyone else on board too while they find and
offload your bag.

How will you prove that you are not a
terrorist?  How much interviewing and searching will be necessary
to prove you are a 'normal' passenger?  And who will then be liable
for you missing your flight?

At least when you go through security, you
usually still have spare time up your sleeve for secondary inspections
or whatever else that might 'go wrong'.  But when you're boarding
the plane, all your spare time has now gone, and if you're pulled aside
at that point, if you can't resolve the issue in a minute or two, you
know you'll not make the flight – and that knowledge will add to your
anxiety and tension and what could be considered 'suspicious demeanor'. 
Even if you do manage to still get your flight, you'll now be almost the
last person on board, which means the precious overhead space for your
carryon has long since filled up.

So, please welcome and encourage
Continental's automatic boarding machines.

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