The ideal airline

I wrote recently on better boarding strategies. Let me talk about what I really want in efficiency from an airline. Well, it seems we are stymied on getting what we really want, something as easy as a train, due to 9/11 oversecurity, but let's see what we can do.

This airline, at least here in California airports, doesn't use a giant air terminal. Instead, the airport is just the airstrips with a big parking lot running all along the side. (Could still do that at many of today's airports backsides.)

The trip begins as I drive off to the airport. I punch the airline's number on my cell phone. They take the caller-id and check me in, then text message me an electronic boarding pass. (I can also do this from a more advanced device or web browser of course.)

I drive into the parking lot and park right at the "gate." I mean 100 feet from the waiting plane. I grab my bag, hand my keys to the parking valet. I flash my cell phone's screen with the text message in front of their scanner which confirms my boarding pass. I go through the security scan, and into the small structure to sit in the chair with my boarding number on it. I access the free wi-fi.

Not long after, boarding is called, and we stand up from the chairs and walk up the stairs to the plane. (No jetways, at least here in California, though you could have them.) The front and back of the plane are used, everybody gets on in just a few minutes.

We land at a similar airport. When I confirmed boarding, the rental car company (or taxi or shuttle) was informed. As I get off the plane, waiting in the parking zone is my rental car. The scanner in the car reads the text message with my rental code and it activates. I drive away. Or perhaps I take a taxi. Perhaps I indicated that I would be happy to share a cab to the convention center so the cab has a list of 2 people to wait for.

On the way back, again I pull up right at the small valet zone at the airplane's gate. The rental company takes the car and I walk on the plane. My boarding is sent to the parking valets, and when my plane arrives, my car is ready in the valet zone. Off I go.

Of course there are flaws...

So what's wrong with this? Well, the open design without a terminal building is only suitable in places like California. You could have small waiting buildings and jetways in places with worse weather. They would not have the fancy services of a real air terminal and be poorer places for a long wait, but I would be happy to take that tradeoff. Inefficiently, each would have to have its own bathrooms and possibly food service. But boy is this still a lot cheaper than a traditional billion dollar airport.

The real problem is security. This system requires security screening at every gate, or with a longer walk, at sets of 3 or 4 gates. That is a lot less efficient, though the wins of this system may make it worth it.

I have considered having a sort of moat in front of the gate, where a security truck drives in to be a bridge over the moat, with scanners and metal detector on the bed of the open truck. Then trucks could scurry to the gates they are needed at. However, this is still hard to do compared to the chokepoint approach used today.

The rest is all doable today, though. More advanced versions might use infrared or bluetooth to exchange boarding passes, but scanning the screen of a cell phone for a text message should be quite workable. A pass printing station would be there for those without a cell phone. This is also aimed more at people without checked luggage, though in fact this would still work fine, though again luggage handlers would have to move from gate to gate as desired. But the bag itself would not travel very far at all, making their job quicker.

And it's also for nonstops. Changing planes (especially with checked luggage) is harder in this system, and a longer walk, outdoors. However, there are plenty of shuttle/nonstop routes which could use this, including the very busy Bay Area to L.A. corridor and some others. Transfer could be a small shuttle bus to the traditional "terminal" on the other side of the airport.


Hey even with the "ideal weather" in CA, it does rain from time to time... especially in northern CA. So a lack of building in which to stage passengers is not really a good thing.

I applaud your efforts to make plane boarding as efficient as possible.

Perhaps the real answer is a biometric system for screening. Once you are in the system, and approved, your quick thumb touch at any of the security gates should let you pass quickly.

The current and woefully ineffective system we use now really does not work. This has been proven by the student that managed to hide various "weapons" on board a plane and had to notify TSA several times before they would even look.

The real solution is flying with pre-approved passengers rather than trying to filter them on site.

Once the passengers are pre-approved, and the biometric "gating" system is in place, there would be no reason for the painstaking ineffective "PC" search system we now pretend works.

No, pre-approval of passengers is actually more dangerous than random screening. Many people make this same mistake, in fact the government itself is getting ready to make it with CAPPS II. With pre-approval, the terrorists have to just keep trying until they find some of their number who can get approved. Then they waltz on the plane. With random screening, they can never be sure they won't be subject to a search. MIT folks did a good paper on this. Pre-approval is al-Quida's friend

Pre approval with CAPPS II is bogus... it is a large database that will try to automatically figure out who is naughty and who is nice... the problem is that there are many folks that are simply null in the system.

True pre-approval will require that a person submit themselves in person to an office and prove who they are... then their biometrics will be be sampled and used to ID them in the future. Random screening can still occur, but the current screening system is a joke (as you outline in the fish that went to Philly story). The threat of random screening will help ensure the viability of pre-approval... yet permit rapid access to the majority of passengers.

TSA has to be perfect with every screen, the bad guys only need to get through once... the odds are against our current screening system being effective. It is like the old logic test of a huge jar filled with jelly beans... if you sample 95% percent, are you still sure that there are no black jellybeans in the jar... no. Yet our present screening system is far less than 95% sure.

What was the basis for the failure of the pre-approval process by MIT (other than letting INS do the approval?) What form did their pre-approval process take?

Trains don't easily jump the tracks and clobber the passengers. There's a very good reason why landing strips are kept far away from parking lots and terminal buildings. Also, we can't all do stairs, and I don't just mean people in wheelchairs -- most disability is hidden disability.

Well, looks like preapproval is exactly what TSA wants:

By LESLIE MILLER, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - The government wants to expand a program that allows air travelers to avoid extra security inspections at airports by volunteering for background checks.

Transportation Security Administration chief David Stone said Monday that the agency is looking to add new airports — domestic and international — to the registered traveler program, now being tested in five cities.

Calling it "one of the most critical programs for TSA," Stone said he's keen to find international partners for it.

Under the test program, people who fly at least once a week give the government their biographical and biometric information, which is checked against databases. Participants who pass muster receive a card that's checked at an airport kiosk, which then lets them into a special security lane. If they don't set off an alarm, they're whisked right through.

The program began in July and was originally scheduled to last 90 days. It was so popular that the TSA extended it indefinitely. About 10,000 frequent fliers are enrolled at airports in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Washington.

Northwest Airlines, which participates in registered traveler in Minneapolis, discovered its customers like the program.

"They're finding they can come to the airport and know exactly how much time they'll need," said Northwest spokesman Thomas Becher.

The test program was free for participants, but TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said the agency expects to charge a modest fee for passengers to sign up when it's up and running.

The Air Transport Association, the major airlines' trade group, wants the program improved so a registered traveler's credential issued in Washington also works in New York or San Francisco. The TSA currently uses different technologies at different airports.

"It's like someone gave you a grocery discount card, but it's only good at your neighborhood store. It's not good down the road or in a neighboring city," said ATA spokesman Doug Wills. "We'd like TSA to fix that."

Congress gave TSA a March 31 deadline to develop a biometric standard to be used for access control at airports.

Rep. John Mica (news, bio, voting record), R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee's aviation panel, said such a standard would also apply to the registered traveler program.

Though Stone didn't say when registered traveler would be expanded, Mica said a biometric standard would allow a broad-based program to start in the spring or summer.

Congress, as part of the intelligence reform bill passed last week, ordered the Homeland Security Department to implement a registered travelers program for people who travel internationally.

People board planes 600 million times in the United States every year. Half of those trips are made by 8 million people. Speeding security checks for frequent travelers who have already been vetted would let government security officials focus their time and attention on higher risk passengers, say supporters of the registered traveler program.


So much for the folks over at MIT.

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