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The wonderful no-security airport terminal

Recently the TSA indicated it is once again considering having no security on planes under 60 seats at small airports. This is controversial, of course, but many security experts think it is the right course for a number of reasons:

  • Small aircraft can't destroy buildings or cause other damage on the ground at the level that large ones can
  • Many other countries allow small aircraft to fly without security with no problems, even allowing weapons to be carried on board in some cases.
  • While a terrorist could strike a small aircraft, the damage they could do is similar to what they can do on a train, subway, boat or bus, and so a similar level of security makes sense.
  • The money saved by not doing security on these flights allows more resources to improve security where it matters more, on larger planes.
  • Security is a huge burden on aviation, making short flights take longer on the ground than they do in the air, and costing large amounts of time and money.

However, whether you agree with that or not, it's worth considering what might happen if flights on small "puddle jumper" planes had less, random or even minimal security. (If flying on a low-security puddle jumper connecting to a larger jet, you would need to go through regular security at the transfer airport.)

Long time readers may know I have predicted that the airport of the future (if VTOL doesn't obsolete it) might be based on robocars rather than buildings. That full vision is outlined at my article on the Robocar airport. We might see some benefits even sooner at the low-security terminal, or with today's robotic shuttles.

For now the TSA is talking about small airports, but many larger airports also have a "regional terminal" which serves only small aircraft and short routes. It would be possible to have a special low security terminal even at a big airport.

Such a "terminal" might just have small, simple buildings with only one floor, combined with rolling ramps and stairs. (Some airports also use the much-hated bus to the airplane.) Those rolling ramps and stairs will soon become robots, able to quickly dock themselves at all the doors on a plane as soon as it pulls up, and connecting to robotic extensible covered walkways for when it's raining.

This terminal might be located right near a fence next to a road, that road devoted to taxi/Uber/Lyft style vehicles as well as shuttles to rental cars, hotels, parking lots and the main terminal.

The result could be an amazing experience for the passenger with no checked luggage. Pull up in an Uber 10 minutes before departure, walk through the fence and walk up the ramp to the plane and your seat. Scan your boarding pass or phone right at your seat. When you land, just walk off, through the one-way gate in the fence and into the Uber you summoned from the plane. (In this case, the Uber/etc. would know your flight and seat number and time your arrival at the curb perfectly with the arrival of your ride.) 15 minutes after landing, you might be downtown, while at a large airport, you would still be in the airport.

If you have checked bags, it's not much worse. Grab a digital tag and sync it to your phone, then toss your bag yourself into a special bomb-proof luggage container. On the way out, touch your phone to the tag to confirm you collected your bag, toss the tag in the bin and walk out.

On top of this, you're using the rear doors on the plane, as is common at small airports, for much faster on/off.

The huge advantage

Based on the way people travel today, even on puddle jumpers, getting there an hour before flights and taking long walks through airports to ground transport, I believe this approach could take almost an hour off the time of a puddle jumper flight. Since many of those are less than an hour, the benefit is huge. Even if the short flights are switched to slightly slower, much more fuel efficient turboprops, the trip will still be much faster. In fact, it's hard to imagine why anybody, except the most security paranoid, would want to fly less than 1,000 miles any other way. That's everybody in in the California and dense eastern corridors.

What about robocars

As noted, making robotic vehicles in controlled environments is a solved problem today. So the first thing to go robotic would be the ramps and stairs.

It's also easy to run regular robotic shuttles, for passengers and luggage, to the main, secured terminal. Of course these shuttles don't go to the secured area, they go to a security station.

This is easy in good weather places like California. In snowy places, you will need more buildings for waiting, and the robotic covered walkway technology needs to be developed. While a human would have a hard tie driving a 200' long articulated rolling covered walkway, that's not too hard a thing for robots. Yes, it would be cold for the walk, as it is anywhere you go from a car to a building.

Eventually the shuttles to parking, passenger pick-up, transit and rental cars will also become robocars.

How about some security?

OK, so the USA may not be quite ready to treat a puddle-jumper like a train, security wise. Of course, there won't be zero security. Security officers will be watching all the time, locally and remotely, to assure people don't walk where they should not. There will probably be a basic metal detector like you see in buildings and stadiums.

There might also be random "full security" with nude photo and everything. Random security checks can actually be quite effective at a low cost. They clearly would not always stop somebody, but they make group attacks like 9/11 very difficult, because if you send 20 people, one of them will get caught in the random check, and then the security switches to tight mode and the rest are caught too.

For short flights, we could also consider putting strong limits on carry-on. You don't need your laptop on a one-hour flight, especially if not having it saves you an hour! If you can place your own carry-on into the hold and remove it yourself, you can be more comfortable with things not being broken or stolen. Most people would be comfortable with a small bag with things like a tablet, phone, book, wallet, snack, medicine etc. Those can be screened very quickly if they need to be screened at all, possibly by AI tools. It might not catch an underpants bomber -- but then neither does the security anywhere else in life that there are crowds. (Including, most ironically, security lines back at the secure terminal.)

Of course all security could be vastly improved if they simply changed the X-ray machines so that the screeners can be remote, watching video data sent over the networks. That way you can dynamically allocate screeners to match the load and keep the belts running at full speed at all times for passengers who don't need secondary inspection. But of course, that would be too clever for the TSA to do, even though the passenger load at all air terminals is perfectly predictable well in advance.

I indicated that board pass scans could take place at the seats. Just equip each seat with a simple scanner and passenger presence detector. 99.9% of the time the computer would report to the flight crew that all passengers are in their right seat. If somebody does try to sneak on, it's obvious. That person will get a chance to experience full security. There is no ID check, but there is no ID check in a lot of the world, especially on small planes, because ID check offers meaningless security and mainly stops people from reselling plane tickets. If you need ID check, you need to go back to the traditional gate where they scan the pass and check the ID. Or you can stop resale by doing random ID checks on one passenger in 20 while going down the aisle serving the drinks.

Like private

If you're lucky, this reminds you of something -- private air travel. The wealthy and corporate have flown with no security hassles and barely any immigration ones since the dawn of air travel. Including in big planes. Passengers drive right up to the plane, take their bags out of the trunk and hand them to somebody, and then park outside or have a valet take the car to the parking. It seems luxurious but there is no reason that something approaching this can be offered to all.

Comments

I recently discovered that only a few decades ago, there were walk-up-and-fly services in the UK, with planes on standby in case demand was higher than expected. Obviously private jets are basically on-demand these days, but I wonder if a much-simplified security and boarding process might return them for normal passengers in the future, especially between smaller airports.

At very small UK airports for domestic flights, it's already possible to essentially walk off the plane and into a taxi. With a network of fixed and drone cameras, it would be fairly easy to keep track of every single passenger and ensure they didn't wander into trouble, with humans or robots ready to intercept in case they did. AR glasses will also make the process of them not getting lost much easier. So I'm not 100% sure if robocars are needed here, although if they're cheap enough, why not? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I know that between Boston and Laguardia, Delta used to have a rule for their shuttle that if too many people showed up, they would immediately put on another plane, so you always knew you would get on, even with no reservation. Famously one time they had N+1 and they rolled up another plane to carry that one extra woman. She didn't want to get on it (even in the days before eco-consciousness) but Delta insisted, I think. They wanted to really make the point. I have taken that shuttle and I do remember the days of walking up to an airport, buying a ticket with cash and flying, but they are a long time ago, now.

Many small aircraft are not flown point to point but are feeders to larger airports. How would you address the concern (raised in the article you link to) of unscreened passengers arriving at larger airports inside the security area?

But if you missed it, the TSA plan would of course have such passengers not be in the secure area, so they would need to go to a security gate, either the regular ones or ideally a special one just for them. Above, I proposed a regular robocar shuttle as a good way to take them there if the small aircraft "terminal" is not adjacent to the main terminals. If most people are making connections, the plane could be a secured plane, or there could be a mix. But if there is enough volume of people not making connections (as is true on the big short-hop corridors) it would be low-security all the way.

This is very much the way sea planes work over in the pacific northwest. You show up 20 mins prior to departure and off you go. No metal detectors or X-rays needed. Wonderful. I assume the FAA has designed the "airport" low risk, so that's why they don't scan passengers. Each sea plane carries 10-20 passengers.

Yes, the TSA is suggesting that for aircraft below a certain size, the risk to people on the ground does not justify the cost of security. I think they mostly mean their costs, but I also include the huge cost to the travel experience because of that extra hour and all the other things. (I have shown up 30 minutes before short flights but I find myself alone in doing so, most people really are showing up almost an hour before.)

Once you realize that you see that evil-doers now have realized they can cause more mayhem on the ground with a truck driving through a crowd than flying a small plane into them or a building. The only remaining risk is to other passengers, where a plane is more vulnerable than a train or bus, but not that much worse, and possibly not as vulnerable as a crowded security line.

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