Hong Kong International Airport's lesson in polite security

Chek Lap Kok airport should market the polite expertise of its staff who, unlikemany in the US, don't harass travellers but proceed with dignity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 4:43am

With the holiday rush for the Lunar New Year of the Snake beginning to gather steam, it is all too easy to remember the bewilderment of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince at seeing one set of people rushing at top speed in one direction by express train while another lot hurtled in the opposite direction.

Trains, buses, cars, boats and aircraft are all clamouring for their right to despoil the environment in the annual rush to be followed shortly by the annual rush back to where they all started, an estimated 3.3 billion land trips in China alone, possibly 50 million air journeys.

"Were they not satisfied with where they were?" the Little Prince asked. It all makes sense for families that are separated most of the year by work, and for the transport companies that get to deploy their vehicles at close to maximum capacity and at high prices.

But it tests the fabric of the environment and of society, and China at least has not yet got to grips with the leading issues. If you seek a monument look around you, as was said about a much worthier contribution to the world than the fog and smog choking Beijing and blowing to disturb other parts of Asia.

At least in Hong Kong and in most of Asia the annual trek in search of new pastures is well organised and not marked by the shuffling long lines and undignified hassle called security checks that spoil any visit to the United States.

Too many people have their own personal stories of incompetence or harassment at the hands of the US Transportation Security Administration agents. Mine are just humdrum.

I had to undergo a pat-down when the supposedly all-seeing new body scanner failed to penetrate my Indian-made cotton shirt. My checked bags were searched by the TSA in Washington and again in San Francisco - they left billets-doux to say so - even though they were in transit in the care of the airline the whole time.

But in the last few weeks too many people have real horror stories: a terminally ill woman passenger in a wheelchair asked to lift her shirt in public view even after the security agent had felt the feeding tubes going into her; the agent who tipped the crematory remains of a passenger's grandfather on the floor and then laughed when he scrambled to pick up bone fragments; broken walking sticks and wheelchairs; crying small children; TSA agents admitting stealing US$40,000 from inside a checked bag at New York's JFK airport.

And that is ignoring claims of purloined or damaged electronic devices, with iPads a favourite target, the grossly sexist remarks, and the tendency of the TSA to target the vulnerable, the old and the young as potential terrorists.

Some people got excited when the TSA this year cancelled its order for Rapiscan body scanners, but this does not mean that the agency has abandoned the devices, only that it will only use machines that don't reveal the victims as naked.

The TSA proudly proclaims that in pursuit of keeping flights safe, it has confiscated guns and ammunition, grenades and land mines (though inert), knives and swords, a stun gun disguised as a pink smartphone, birds en route to China, live fish and frosted cupcakes.

But the bottom line is that in terms of terrorists arrested the score is zero. Even more damning is the verdict of security experts that for all the fancy uniforms, the security queues, the inconvenience and sometimes harassment of passengers, the TSA checks are mainly theatrical.

A former FBI agent with 25 years of experience, many of them in counterterrorism dealing with al-Qaeda, gave the TSA a resounding "fail". The basic paradigm was fatally flawed, he said. A half-capable terrorist would be able to fashion weapons out of common articles allowed on board, including pens and pencils, lollypop sticks, anything with wire or plastic or even newspapers.

But why bother, when there are real butcher's knives and cleavers being used in restaurant kitchens on the concourse and when beaches adjoining airports, such as Los Angeles, are only lightly patrolled against a terrorist intrusion.

But if the pretences are to be kept up, and air travel seen as fantasy and fantastic experience, Hong Kong International Airport should be aggressively marketing the professional and polite expertise of its capable security system.

Hong Kong's security staff have the fancy braided uniforms to show that they are serious, but they also behave professionally, capably and politely. They don't smash locks or pilfer luggage; if they are in doubt about a bag after a six-step screening, they invite the passenger to open it for them. I have never seen anyone browbeaten or harassed or in tears after security in Hong Kong.