Work/Life: Say It Ain't So, Shoeless Joe

"Shoeless" Joe Jackson got that nickname for taking off his shoes once in the second game of a doubleheader in 1908.

One hundred and one years later, TSA is still making Shoeless Joes of us all with the apparently immutable requirement that we remove our shoes when entering the airport's walk-through metal detector.

In fact, we've been taking off our shoes since 2001, although hope springs eternal that some day technology will let business travelers race through airports wearing something other than penny loafers.

But it goes beyond just shoes. Nearly nine years after 9/11 we are still unpacking our suitcases, hauling out our laptops, and doing an ersatz striptease while juggling gray trays full of our personal possessions. If we are not yet at the point where we can detect potentially damaging materials without this slow, tedious, and annoying process, one wonders what the future holds for speeding passengers through airports.

Count me among the road warriors who strongly encourage the TSA and other regulatory agencies to aggressively move to upgrade the development and implementation of 21st century screening technology. For example, when will we have the technology to screen liquids? The policy of trashing oversize liquid containers has many travelers confused, including one on the TSA blog site who observes: "...would you remind us why TSA thinks it's safe to line up next to a trash can full of 'potential liquid explosives'?"

Without new technology we are left to deal with the old TSA restrictions about what (and how much) may be brought aboard. This leads to all sorts of inefficiencies, which manifest themselves as needlessly long lines, which, in turn, require additional staff, which, in turn, drives up costs.

It goes without saying that customer satisfaction takes a hit, too.

The TSA security process mirrors what's happening with our air traffic control system. Clearly, it is past time for the FAA to really push for a major strategic investment in airport and air traffic control technology.

Most assuredly, all of this will be expensive. On the other hand, if the federal government cannot find the funds in the most enormous spending legislation ever approved, when will it? The return on investment is obvious — an immediate and tangible improvement in airline profitability and business productivity, and possibly even an uptick in business travel.

Any boost in business travel would have a noticeable trickle-down effect on travel service providers, from hotels and car rentals to restaurants and golf courses and the entertainment industry, and on down the line.

If managed intelligently, airport technology investment will create new jobs, even new industries, boosting our economy across the board.

Here's a suggestion: Let's consider a national technology incentive — similar to what NetFlix did so successfully. Let's put a reward out there for the first company that creates the best next-generation technology for security screening, and for flight tracking and routing. Anyone who is a fan of iPhone apps can see that the requisite creativity is alive and well in America. Let's tap some of that brainpower to create technology for America's airports.

Let's also give the FAA and TSA concrete deadlines for beginning to adopt and install this new technology, starting with the most-congested airports.

The good news is that the TSA seems committed to transitioning U.S. airports from conventional metal detectors to the advanced whole body scanners. Thus far they've been deployed at 19 airports in the U.S. While these new scanners are controversial because they enable screeners to see through your clothes, everything I've read indicates that they may dramatically speed up security lines. Newer versions are in the works that would transform naked bodies into stick figures, which would eliminate even that controversy.

In fact, the EU is moving toward ending the ban on liquids in carry-on bags when this new screening technology is adopted. If and when that happens, the U.S. will have to follow suit.

While I had hoped that whole body scanners also would free us to once again walk shod through airports, Martha Lynn Craver in Kiplinger's "Shorter Airport Security Lines Ahead" says the technology for scanning shoes while they are still on people's feet has flopped. The question remains: Will we still be going shoeless through scanners 10 years from now?

Say it ain't so, Joe!



Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com

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