Human eyes still needed

July 29, 2014

Although air travel had never been devoid of bad guys and hijackers pre-9/11, it is a distinction in history that that day, 13 years ago, marked a definite loss of innocence with regards to the airplane. Post-9/11, very little affecting air security is left to chance, with increasing security restrictions and measures being added to try and keep up with terroristic innovations. Starting this week, for instance, all passengers in United States-bound flights flying out of certain airports in the world may be asked to turn on their mobile devices at security checkpoints to prove that it is not a cleverly designed bomb. This will, no doubt, add an extra hour to the security clearance process in the strictest airports. Such is the world we live in today.

At the same time, as airlines and airports try to cater for their ever-growing clientele, the demand is for better and faster service. For this reason, and because automation reduces the need to pay for frontline human personnel, most modern airports and airlines have gradually been converting to the self check-in system. From July 15, for instance, it will become mandatory for all Malaysia Airlines economy class passengers to self check-in. The move is a precursor to the soon-to-be introduced baggage self-drop-off and tagging system, which will also dispense with the need for human interaction, cost a fraction that of counter services, cut queue time and speed up the check-in process. The only problem with the fully self-service system is that it cuts out a lot of human eyeballs, which are essential in assessing the behavior and body language of passengers before they get on the plane. This was one of the concerns airline security management had in the early days of online ticket sales, and later, check-ins, because it robbed airline staff of the opportunity to interact with would-be passengers and ascertain their mood. The more layers of frontline staff a passenger had to go through, the better the chances of someone spotting something. Long queues also serve a purpose in giving security personnel the chance of scrutinizing passenger behavior and conducting facial recognition scans.

With several layers removed, will there be sufficient other security measures in place to pick up the slack? As the pre-boarding events in flight MH370 have proven, our security screening is, as yet, far from being foolproof. And though our internal security forces are doing a reasonably good job of routing out the homegrown international militancy that is now coming out of the woodworks, a lot of effort and vigilance needs to be put in to ensure that none of these people ever make it on a plane flying out of our airports. The need for speed should not jeopardize the need for security.

— New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia