Fear and Loathing at Airports

Why not challenge design firms to evaluate our current airport security systems?

I’m standing in a small cell on a pair of large footprints traced on carpet. Transparent doors slam shut behind me as I stare through the locked doors in front of me. I wait. A few moments pass, and as I look around the phone-booth-size space I start feeling claustrophobic. To counter this sense of entrapment, I take deep breaths and count, inhaling and exhaling. Suddenly blasts of cool air come at me from all directions, mussing my hair and rippling my clothing—it sounds as if six tires are deflating in rapid succession. I wait for the doors to open for what seems like an eternity.

I have just made one stop in an involved security system at Miami International Airport. Whether I’m here because my name came up randomly or for some other reason, I feel anxious and fearful. But, you could argue, the system is made to protect me from bad people doing bad things, and I should be grateful for this. I am. But why does the process of keeping us safe have to be so clumsy and dehumanizing? And why should the security people, hired to do an honest day’s work, be so rude and dismissive to so many people who just want to get to their destinations?

When the doors finally open, I’m told to leave my belongings on the table, step onto another pair of footprints, and wait to be scanned with an electronic wand. My boarding pass is still in the hands of a guard; my bags, however, have been turned over to a security woman. She brushes my purse with a small cloth, which she runs through a faxlike machine. No one offers any explanation for what has just happened to me. Why was I subjected to the blasts of air? What kind of information did I leave in that booth and where did it go? Who is analyzing the results of this massive Breathalyzer?

Since 9/11 we have seen the quality of our public life erode enormously. Nowhere is this massive shift felt more graphically and viscerally than in airports—and understandably so. The images of hijackers breezing through security checkpoints on that terrible September morning continue to haunt us.

Today my identity is checked by layers of people as I shuffle through endless lines snaking behind flimsy partitions. I place my belongings in beat-up plastic boxes to be conveyed to X-ray machines. My body is subjected to even more detailed strips and searches. I am a victim of unplanned antidotes to threats all of us have grown to accept as real. New devices are added to the system—the infamous “Puffer Machine” in Miami is one—with each new act of violence in the Middle East and elsewhere (or perhaps just because these systems tend to perpetuate themselves).

All this leads me to think that it’s time for designers to get involved in airport security. Why not challenge firms such as IDEO to evaluate our current airport security systems? They have done some sensible and sensitive studies of how we experience our environments. Who could forget their thorough examination of hospitals and how patients, their families, and caregivers interact in stressful moments (Metropolis, October 2002)? Such design teams know how to deconstruct every activity with sophisticated research methodology. They observe behavior and come up with suggestions of how we can interact with our physical world while keeping our emotional well-being, and dignity, intact.

If security is a twenty-first-century necessity, it needs the attention of experts in design and human behavior, those who understand the individual—you and me—and our complex natures. Those in charge of designing, building, and operating our public places need to remember that we are not faceless ciphers tramping in a brainless herd. Each of us in that long security line, as well as those whose job it is to take us through the process, is a unique example of our species. We ask that our public spaces be planned to reflect this reality.

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