Brad Templeton Home
Clearing Security on Transit to the Airport
Some years ago, when reading about how California needs a $30B 3 hour high speed train from SF to LA because even though the flight is an hour, the downtown to downtime time is much longer during airport hassles, I felt something didn't make sense.
What if just ran the high speed train to the airport, and then moved the airport hassles to the otherwise wasted time we spend on the train? Ie. let you get your boarding pass, check your bags and clear security while on the train, then get shuttled directly to the secure area and dropped very close to your gate, or even at your out in the gateless section of the tarmac as some airports do?
After 9/11, air travel got even slower, and security nastier, especially during high-alert times. People now have to show up much earlier for flights. At least half an hour has been added to most trips, often much more. With 600 million passengers/year, one half hour of waste turns into 750 full human waking lifetimes wasted each year. (If on average a premature death cuts off half a life, double that number.)
But leave aside arguments about that and consider that with the extra security, the idea of clearing it on the trip to the airport makes even more sense. That's because it changes the equation on transit.
Today many people drive cars instead of taking transit. It is of course nicer if you have bags, and it's often faster. Except on the world's most frequent systems, you must wait some time for your train/bus, and deal with stops. So many people, faced with saving 20 minutes of clearing security but a trip that's 30 minutes longer would still drive.
Imagine a series of frequent trains, ferries or even busses with special or virtual right-of-way feeding into the airport. Let's start with the train concept, which is probably easiest (though ferries are even more flexible.)
At the platform, while waiting for your train, or even earlier via the web, you could start your check-in process. You can already do this on many airlines. You might get your boarding pass and identifiers for checked luggage. (If checked luggage is workable -- see below.) You would board the special cars for the airport in the uncleared section. (The train might also have other destinations, those cars would be blocked off.) You would drop identified checked luggage at a luggage car where it would get any additional processing, scanning and search.
Slowly, airline and security staff would move down the car with their X-ray machine and wands. As they got to your area, passengers would fold up their seats to create a standing zone, and get their bags examined and their bodies metal-detected. On the other side of the metal detector you would now be in the cleared section of the train. Barring strange mishaps, they would get to the end and clear all the airport cars by the time they reach the airport. New passengers would get on at the uncleared section of the train, the doors would not open in the cleared section.
At the Airport
At the airport, the special cars would pull into a special station only for cleared passengers. They would then move to special busses or an airport people mover. The checked bags would also be moved to luggage trucks or another part of the passenger mover. (Many airports do something like this already.)
The special bus would take you directly to the secured area of the airport, in fact, probably somewhere very close to your gate itself. Today most airports have a small lane for luggage trucks and airport vehicles to move around the gates. You might have to walk up to the jetway in some airports. Disabled people would need a special solution.
Using wireless networks, the airline would be fully aware of your position at all times. You could walk onto the plane, and do it just a short time before departure, using the boarding card issued to you.
Two birds with one stone
Of course, it only takes a short time for any one person to go through security, and often the line is fairly short, even today. The real problem is not knowing how long it will take to get through security. This forces you to arrive much earlier than you need to -- for that one time in ten that there really is a long line. This eliminates that problem, you will know exactly how long it will take to get through security. Ideally web sites will provide info on any overloads of the system or needs for backup.
This also puts more people on transit. That reduces traffic on highways and at the airport. It reduces need for airport parking and pollution. It actually improves things for everybody else, even those who must go directly to the airport in cars (possibly including the disabled, and those not living near a transit stop.)
It makes it possible to get that coveted short "downtown to downtown" time. One could imagine boarding a train or ferry downtown, taking a 20 minute trip to the airport, a 5 minute internal bus and walking onto a plane 10 minutes before departure. Leaving downtown just 35 minutes ahead of one's flight is unheard of today.
This is more expensive from a security standpoint, because the security and check-in employees -- and their machines -- unfortunately are idle slightly over half the time as they make the return trip to the start of the secured zone. So are their machines. It's worse than that, because they might also be idle on periods of light traffic.
(Note they don't have to start security at the start of the line. If they can clear the car in 15 minutes they only shuttle back and forth 15 minutes from the airport.)
Of course, one might find a ready set of employees who would think this would be a fine job, that gives them tons of break time where they can read, relax, watch TV, surf the net etc. But it's still more expensive than concentrating everybody through a chokepoint at the entrance to each terminal.
It may not save as much time for people with checked bags, since the machines that scan checked bags are large and would not fit on a bus or possibly even a train. They would fit on a ferry but they are also expensive to duplicate and have sit idle on return trips. It may mean that this system is only workable for people using only carry-on luggage.
That may not be so bad, since these are the flights most burdened by adding all this extra time. Checked luggage may have to be offloaded to the usual screening process, meaning you would need to get to the airport 35 minutes before departure, instead of our new possible 15.
Even with the extra cost, I think it's worth it. Many, including myself, would be willing to shoulder the burden in slightly higher ticket costs.
I believe the system is as secure as existing systems, though as a new system it hasn't been stress tested yet. Of course one would have to defend against hijack, possibly with (sigh) constant video surveillance of the trains, and at least one highly incorruptible security officer per team.