Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

REMOVING your shoes, belt, jacket — as well as the unexplained requirement to unpack your laptop ahead of a pat-down by security officers — has been a constant pain for business and leisure travellers.

However, by 2017 this routine might be a thing of the past if an ambitious programme to change airport security arrangements takes off as planned.

The current outdated, intrusive and time-consuming screening processes at airports — particularly those at ports of entry into national territories — are facing an overhaul. Proposed changes, together with trial runs, are in full swing at various airports around the world.

Airlines and airports are all too aware of the negative associations travellers have due to airport security, because of the one-size-fits-all approach to passenger screening. Their response is an attempt to change the travel experience and make airports more efficient.

The most recent passenger air travel survey by the International Air Transport Association (Iata) shows that the number one passenger complaint is queuing time, which received 37% of the vote for six travel bugbears mentioned in the study.

Iata, which represents 230 airlines, found that the second-most cited irritant for travellers is being compelled to take off shoes and belts (21%). Removing electronic goods came in as third-most annoying (12%).

"It is no secret that security is a big bottleneck in the travel process," Iata CEO and director-general Tony Tyler said earlier this month at an Iata media day in Geneva. "Keeping terrorists off aircraft is a top priority for both industry and government. We need to do that effectively and efficiently."

However, feedback from travellers is proof there is "plenty of scope for improvement".

The desire to improve provided the impetus behind the checkpoint of the future programme spearheaded by the aviation industry, with support from Iata’s secretariat.

The programme was first presented last year at Iata’s annual general meeting in Singapore when, according to Mr Tyler, it was "little more than a concept". Blueprints have now been developed to facilitate checkpoint capabilities in three phases.

This was after successful component tests had been run in Amsterdam (liquid, gel and laptop screening technologies), Heathrow (remote camera identity verification) and Geneva (biometric identity authentication) over the past few months, Mr Tyler said.

Over the past year, projects have focused on identity and document verification.

Globally, checkpoints process an average of 149 passengers an hour per lane, says Iata director for security and travel facilitation Ken Dunlap.

"Before September 11 this number was 350 passengers or more," he said, referring to the meticulous testing since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

Compared to last year, global passenger growth is projected to climb by 800-million by 2016 to 3.6-billion a year. Congestion at airports would only get worse unless the industry acted now, Mr Dunlap said.

Leading the checkpoint programme is a 12-member advisory group consisting of senior international airline and airport executives, government officials and security specialists from Interpol. Also included are aviation specialists from the United Nations International Civil Aviation Authority.

The advisory group oversees the work of more than "110 experts in airport design, screening equipment design, security screening procedures, behaviour analysis, academics and law enforcement," said Mr Dunlap.

In the course of this year, the group has "developed a concept definition and blueprints to take us through checkpoint evolutions from today to 2014, 2017 and 2020," he said.

By 2014, the checkpoint programme will be working towards national traveller programmes such as Pre Check in the US and Nexus in Canada that are already in use, Mr Dunlap said. Prescreening by governments allows for an assessment of a traveller’s risk profile, which will determine the level of scrutiny at an airport.

By 2014, more covert observation of travellers will be done by plainclothes security specialists trained to analyse behaviour anomalies. Airport security staff will also make greater use of remote image processing.

By 2017 there will be no need to remove shoes, belts and watches. Known traveller programmes are scheduled to be in place internationally, allowing for differentiated screening for travellers based on a personalised data-driven risk assessment. Travelling with liquids and gels in your hand luggage would no longer be a problem.

There would be more automation of behaviour observation — for example: walking through a scanner that can pick up an increase in body temperature. which might indicate elevated stress levels.

By 2020 and beyond, airports will use a combination of integrated, high-end screening technologies allowing passengers to "have a walk-through experience without interruption" unless a threat was detected, says Mr Dunlap.

The end goal is to have a highly sophisticated screening process without being intrusive, as it would not necessarily be visible to users.

Next year, a "dozen" new trials will be run to support the rollout of the first end-to-end checkpoint, in line with the vision for airports in 2014.