From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Shoeless or Not, Airport Security Still Hinges On Humans

Kicking your shoes off in line at the airport may now be merely encouraged rather than mandatory, but shoeless or not, today’s airport security still hinges almost entirely upon the decision-making abilities of workers, and that, say some experts in the fields of human factors and ergonomics, leaves a little too much room for error in today’s airport security.

“[W]e must make sure our security process is consistent so air travelers know what to expect at every airport in the country,” said Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator James Loy, in a written statement on regarding Thursday’s decision to make shoe removal voluntary rather than required. But, according to human factors experts, that decision is just the first step towards improving the entire system.

In an earlier interview with Ergoweb, Dr. Eric C. Neiderman, TSA’s Program Manager for Human Factors, concurred with Loy, noting that there is room for improvement in airport security. Operator capability, person-machine performance and human-system effectiveness, Neiderman said, all hinge upon the human factors involved in airport screening, which ultimately means the safety of travelers is in the hands and the decisions of the screeners.

Dr. Douglas H. Harris, Chairman and Principal Scientist of Anacapa Sciences, Inc., the author of a number of papers on the human factors involved in airport security, agrees. “Delays, frustrations, apparent inconsistencies,” said Harris, former president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), all have roots in the human side of airport security. “Seeing inconsistencies gives the traveling public less confidence,” Harris told Ergoweb.

The problems don’t lie in the workers themselves, however. According to an article Harris published in the Winter 2002 issue of Ergonomics in Design, “Current approaches to screening passengers and carry-on baggage require operators to perform tasks for which humans are poorly equipped: the detection of rarely occurring, low-signal-to-noise-ratio signals embedded in the context of varying background configurations,” he wrote. Add to that other factors