TSA Self-Checkout Is Coming, But Will It Really Make Air Travel Suck Less?

TSA Self-Checkout Is Coming, But Will It Really Make Air Travel Suck Less?

TSA started testing a new “self-checkout” lane in Las Vegas on Wednesday for pre-checked flyers. Network TV morning shows billed it as the future of airport security. But anyone who’s been frustrated with the robot cashiers at supermarkets and big box retailers will likely be asking themselves a simple question: Why?

The new TSA self-checkout lane looks a lot like the existing security you’re probably familiar with at U.S. airports. There are bins for your belongings that run along a conveyor belt and backscatter X-ray machines to scan your body. The innovation with these new self-checkout lanes appears to be the absence of large numbers of TSA agents who typically explain things.

“If you have any questions, simply ask the TSA officer on demand,” NBC reporter Tom Costello explained on the Today show on Wednesday.

Costello explains that TSA officers “will dial in remotely,” though it’s not clear if the officers are on-site at the airport or potentially thousands of miles away. Whatever the answer, passengers then walk into a body imaging machine, holding their arms down to the side rather than above as the computer scans for any potential weapons. Or, in the case of one woman who had to walk through “four or five times” when the Today was filming, any hair clips.

The goal appears to be removing as many TSA officers from the process as possible, though there will still be agents around to conduct any pat-downs they deem necessary.

Or, as the TSA put it in a press release on Wednesday:

The aim is to provide a near self-sufficient passenger screening process while enabling passengers to directly receive on-person alarm information and allow for the passenger self-resolution of those alarms to reduce instances where a pat-down or secondary screening procedure would be necessary.

After the screening process is done, automated exit doors open up and travelers can make their way to their gates.

Much like the self-checkout machines at places like Target and your local grocery store, the idea seems to be to turn us all into cashiers—or, in this case, into our own security agents. And you can theoretically get see how fewer TSA staff would be necessary if more of the process was automated and humans only needed to get involved when there’s a problem.

TSA has historically struggled to retain workers as many have complained about long hours, low pay, and even lower morale. And it makes sense for TSA to explore ways to replace humans in whatever way they can. But will self-checkout machines make the process easier, or will they just offload labor onto people who are already doing more things that used to be handled by humans, like printing and affixing their own luggage tags, among a host of other changes in recent years?

These new self-checkout lanes were developed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, an office that focuses on new technologies often abbreviated as S&T. The TSA has stressed that this is just a trial, at least for the time being.

“This self-service prototype allows our trusted travelers to complete the screening process at their own pace,” TSA administrator David Pekoske said in a press release Wednesday.

“Testing at the Innovation Checkpoint in Las Vegas gives us an opportunity to collect valuable user data and insights, and explore opportunities to apply parts of the prototype to other airport security checkpoints. I am grateful for our partners in S&T and LAS airport, who were critical in bringing this vision to reality,” Pekoske continued.

S&T first awarded contracts to three companies to develop the self-checkout lanes back in 2021 and the version being tested now was just one of the three. If this checkout lane gets negative reviews—and TSA stresses they want to hear feedback, whether it’s positive or negative—they may presumably move on to a different design.

One thing seems certain though, whether it’s federal agencies that interact with the public, so-called rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, or brick-and-mortar stores selling you socks: More and more labor will be offloaded to regular consumers as a way to save money on paying staff. Because if we’ve learned anything from so many technological advances over the past 15 years, it’s that real innovation isn’t always in the ones and zeroes. Sometimes it’s just about finding a way to pay less money to fewer workers.

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