Security theatre in England.

Posted on Samizdata: Samizdata enraged rant of the day about the results of the composite problem of government granted monopolies, security theatre, and time sensitivity.

... "However, once in a while one has a doosey of an experience, and I had one this morning. I was booked to fly from London Stansted Airport to Bologna in Italy. The flight was due to leave at 7.15am. I got up at an unpleasant 4.30am to leave for the airport. Transport to the airport was uneventful, and I arrived approximately an hour before my flight was due to leave. I was not checking luggage, and walking through the airpot and getting to the front of the security queue meant that I got to the X-Ray machine and metal detector at security by about 6.25am. I took my laptop out of my bag, and put it through the machine separately. The operator of the X-Ray machine apparently decided that there was something in my bag that required manual attention, as occasionally happens. It happens to me more than to most people, because I carry a fair amount of electronic equipment with me: fairly bulky photographic equipment, phones, chargers, a Kindle, accessories for the laptop and an assortment of chargers and adaptors to go with them. Yes, I am one of these people. No, this is not very unusual.

As I said, this happens from time to time. Normally a security person takes my bag off the conveyor belt, and either conducts a manual search of the bag, or tells me to take a particular item out of the bag, and the bag and that item go through the X-Ray machine separately. No big deal, and I am delayed five minutes or less.

However, this morning I discovered that security at Stansted Airport had installed a new system of conveyor belts, and the conveyor belt now forked coming out of the X-Ray machine. Problematic bags that required a manual search now ended up in a separate conveyor belt in a queue of their own. This meant that they did not need to be dealt with immediately to keep the main conveyor belt moving.

So, I waited for someone to deal with my bag. There were four other bags waiting in the queue ahead of mine. The security staff were dealing with various issues, and were being constantly distracted from job to job. They didn't seem particularly interested in manual searches of bags. When they did start doing a manual bag search, they got distracted by other tasks in the middle of doing so, so that these searches took much longer than they should have. Amazingly, getting to my bag - the fifth in the queue- took more than half an hour. Although I had got to the head of the queue before 6.30am, it was after 7.00am before somebody even started the manual search of my bag. I explained at this point that I was likely to miss my flight, and I was told that

If you miss your flight, it will be your fault. You should have taken your liquids out of your bag as instructed

I had no liquids in my bag, and I explained this. I was then told that I must have left a laptop in my bag. I pointed to my laptop, which I was holding in my hands. I was told that I must have left something I was not supposed to in my bag, as bags were only retained for manual searches when people had ignored the instructions in some way. A further five minutes or more were then taken to inspect the contents of my bag and put my electronic devices through the X-Ray machine again. The person doing this was distracted by other tasks several more times, and the bag search was done slowly and inefficiently.

Thinking about it later, most of the other people in front of me whose bags were subject to manual searches did in fact have liquids in their bags that they had not taken out. This does appear to be the reason for most manual searches. This probably does annoy security staff as it creates extra work for them. This (combined with the 'serves you right' response when I mentioned I might miss my flight) makes me suspect that the delays in doing these manual inspections may not be simple incompetence, but something a little more malevolent than that. Surly, resentful employees are going out of their way to inconvenience passengers who are perceived as making things hard for them. All I had done was have a bag with slightly unusual contents. Other people might have accidentally left a laptop in a bag. (I have done this at other airports, and the delay has been perhaps 60 seconds. Not at Stansted today, though). The idiocy of the liquid ban comes into this too. Pointless rules make for pointless jobs and resentful, surly employees. I am still not sure how much of this was incompetence and how much malevolence. A bit of both, I suppose.

As it happened, I did miss my flight. My short trip to Italy is cancelled. I am out of pocket the cost of my non-changeable, non-refundable flight, the cost of transport to the airport, and the cost of one night's accommodation in Italy, the hotel at which I had a reservation having an 'In the event of a same day cancellation, the cost of one night's accommodation will be charged' policy. Annoying for me, but no fault of any of those businesses, of course. The rental car company (Europcar) with which I had a vehicle booked were nice enough to give me a full refund, however, so I will be doing business with them again. Plus I had got up at 4.30am and wasted a morning for no reason. And I am not sitting beside the Adriatic eating pasta and drinking chianti, which was where I had intended to be this evening, and in fact where I paid good money to be this evening.

So who do I blame for this? The security employees themselves, certainly. Governments who impose stupid security rules, of course. BAA, the company that owns Stansted Airport, certainly. The botched privatisation process of London's airports, that too. (BAA was a government department that was privatised with a monopoly over London's airports. It still has the attitude to customer service that one expects from a tax department. Or perhaps the post office. Or the NHS. Or a railway ticket office in Smolensk in 1983. A heavily regulated private sector monopoly that behaves like a government department is not a dramatic improvement on a government department).

To some extent complaining about security procedures at airports is like complaining about the fact that water is wet. These things just are. However, I cannot help but think that an appropriate level of outrage is appropriate.

David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Financing Transportation Networks

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on April 11, 2011 9:28 AM.

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