Monday, July 13, 2015

You Can't Take It With You: Airline Security as Industrial Engineering

The first question you may have is, what's industrial engineering?  It's an uninformative name for an important discipline:  the study of how best to design industrial processes of every type, from time-and-motion studies of assembly lines to how we can treat more hospital patients better with fewer resources.  The subject came to my mind recently as I was lifting empty gray plastic tubs from a conveyor belt onto a stacking machine that automatically recycled them to the head of the line at a security checkpoint in London's Heathrow Airport.  How did I get that job?  Well, let me begin at the beginning.

This was on the return leg of a business trip to France.  Lest you think I'm a world traveler, I should say that this was my first international trip in five or six years, and I'd never been to France before.  The conference I attended was in the "department" (sort of a state) of Cantal, in the legendary South of France, which is world-famous for its wine and cheese.  These attractions were somewhat wasted on me as I don't drink wine and I don't like cheese.  But at the end of the conference, the organizers gave me a box containing selections of the local foods.  I received it eagerly with the hope that I could take it back to my wife, who is fond of cheese and has been known to have a sip of wine now and then.  What neither I nor the conference organizers reckoned on was airline security.

For those familiar with the U. S. Transportation Security Administration system, the French do it similarly except you don't have to take off your shoes.  They had set aside my bag after the X-ray, though.  They wanted to know what a dark cylindrical object was.  I took out the cardboard box of goodies and opened it up for them.  There was a can of paté of some kind.  When they saw what it was, they were happy, and let me go.  So far, so good, but next came British security in London.

At Heathrow, everything is very organized.  First you queue up and have to go through a kind of museum display of all kinds of items you can't put in your luggage.  Anything liquid or liquid-like, you have to take out and put in a clear plastic bag for them to sniff at.  I'd done this with my toothpaste and thought I was all ready for them.  Think again.

It really did look like a miniature production line when I got to the luggage X-ray system.  You are handed these large gray plastic tubs and everything has to fit in a tub.  Then this industrial-quality conveyor belt with motorized rollers lines up the tubs to go through the X-ray.  If something fishy shows up, all the operator has to do is push a button, and a set of push rods shoves the suspect tub out of the main line into a second inspect-by-hand line behind a clear plastic barrier.  To my dismay, that happened to both of my tubs of stuff.

My glasses were in one of the tubs, but I could see well enough to watch my luggage as it sat behind the barrier.  It was well back in a line of several, and so it would be a while before I could get at it again.  Just to have something to do, I started picking up the empty tubs that the more fortunate travelers were leaving behind, and stacked them on the automatic return gizmo.  While I was doing this for ten or fifteen minutes, I noticed one of the inspect-by-hand inspectors playing with what I thought at first was a back-scratcher he'd confiscated from someone.  It was a blue plastic wand about a foot and a half (50 cm) long with some white cloth thing at the end. 

Then I noticed he was wiping it over contents of a piece of luggage and taking it over to a machine.  He removed the cloth and stuck it in the machine.  Turns out it was an ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) device that uses the varying speed of ions under the influence of an electric field to detect vapors of explosives, drugs, and other non-allowed chemicals.  Very clever technology which has made it out of the lab into the field—at least, a lot of airfields.

Finally, they got to my bag.  I pulled out the notorious box and showed him the contents.  There was a glass bottle of something—maybe it was beer—and a jar of what looked like marmalade. 

"I'm sorry, sir, but these are both over 200 milliliters.  To take them with you you'll have to go back out and check this bag."  There wasn't time, so I bid my marmalade and beer, or whatever it was, good-by.  I never even got a good look at them.  Then he let me go.

All was well after that till the U. S. passport control point at the Austin airport.  At passport control, there were just a bunch of kiosks with computerized touchscreens asking you a series of questions.  One of them was about food brought back from abroad. 

I faced an ethical dilemma.  I knew if I said I had none, I'd be lying, but I could also get through quicker.  Partly just to see what happened, I answered yes, I did have food from abroad.  There was a big "A" on the slip of paper that came out, which I handed to a man at the exit.  He put a big red checkmark on it, stuffed it in a blue folder, and told me to go have a seat over there.

Over there turned out to be a waiting area with people in it who looked like they were all at a funeral.  I said, "Nobody looks very cheerful over here."  One lady griped that this was what she got for being honest. 

In a bit, a brisk gal in a uniform came up, said, "Everybody with blue folders, come with me."  I was the only one, so I followed her into a room where once again, I took out the box and showed her what was in it.  This time the offending item was a piece of dried sausage sealed in plastic wrap.  "The meat has to go, but you can keep the other stuff."  So it went, and in another minute so did I.

Based on my limited sample during my trip, I'd say the British win the industrial-engineering competition for most efficient carry-on-luggage inspection.  They also took the most stuff.  All I have left from Cantal is a bag of cookies and that can of paté.  I don't know much French, but I think the label says it has a guaranteed minimum fat content of 30%.  Paté, anyone?

Sources: You can read more about ion mobility spectrometry at the website of a manufacturer of these systems, Smiths Detection: 

1 comment:

  1. To compare airport security to engineering of any kind is insulting. It's more like performance art or theater. :-)