Right sizing and re-focussing airport security in India

Thanks to the increasing security threats, queues at security checks have become the bane of air travellers across the world. However, during my recent trip to Malaysia and Thailand, I found reasonably fast moving lines. In contrast, at peak hours across airports in India, we experience extremely long lines at security checks and a boarding process that moves slower than the thickest of molasses. On one particular early morning flight, it took me more time to cover the 200 meters from the ATC tower at Bangalore airport to the boarding gate than it took for me to cover the 55 kilometres to the airport.

The constant refrain we passengers hear from the CISF, the agency entrusted by India’s Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) to enforce airport security, is of inadequate staff.

The main thing I observe is the excess deployment of CISF personnel at the X-ray, metal detector and frisking check point. Thanks to the rules mandated by BCAS this requires four CISF guards per lane, much higher than global standards. The insistence on a full body frisk adds to the check time, but is a good option in my humble opinion.

Not so good, is this archaic insistence on stamping everything from hand baggage tags to boarding passes. Hardly any other country in the world has this system.

In addition to burdening the CISF into deploying additional staff to check, then stamp, and then verify the stamp, the process appears to have given the CISF guards a form of tunnel vision. The entire security process now seems to be centred around “the stamp”. A fifth guard is deployed at the boarding gate only to verify the stamps further delaying the boarding process.

While I was travelling out of Bangalore a few months ago, the CISF team at the X-ray point forgot to stamp one of tags of my hand baggage. I was made to trudge all the way back from the boarding gate just to get my bag stamped. The team at the X-ray point did not check my bag a second time, but just stamped my bag.

The very fact that only a stamp matters is, in and of itself, a very scary thought, implying that persons in the security process do not trust their predecessor in the chain. If the security chain is foolproof, then the very fact that a passenger is in the sterile security hold automatically implies he/she has been checked; in which case the stamp is immaterial. If the chain is not fool proof, then no amount of stamping will matter.

In a few months Indira Gandhi International Airport will inaugurate Terminal 3, one of the largest in the world with over 100 gates. What happens to flight timings if a passenger is made to walk all the way back from the furthest gate, which will be about half a kilometre to the security checkpoint just to get a stamp?

The CISF will insist that the event of security breakdown they can identify which guard checked the mischief monger. In the recent security flap when black powder was found on a Kingfisher aircraft, the security agencies first went back and reviewed camera footage, not bag tags, to ensure every passenger was checked.

It is time to right-size, re-focus, and use modern techniques. CISF staff currently deployed around “the stamp” should instead be used more productively to further enhance security by observing and profiling passengers. More than a bomb or knife, it is the predictable regularity of drunks getting aboard an aircraft and then creating havoc, that scares regular fliers.

This, the CISF claims, is the airlines’ responsibility, not theirs. Should ensuring the safety of a flight by delivering a “sterile” passenger, be it a knife, gun, or bomb wielding terrorist or the equally out of control belligerent or drunk, not be the responsibility of the CISF?

Another pet peeve of mine is the fact that at almost all airports the gate is a double door. Yet the CISF guard will open only one door, block the other, and expect passengers to squeeze through the narrow gap. I just stop at the gate and tell them I am too wide. While this gets me a glare, it also opens the doors for me.

Read related article about the wrong stamp being applied to a boarding pass.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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