Futuristic unmanned portals have replaced officers at the security exits of two small Northeast airports, adding a few seconds in a bulletproof glass pod to the end of every passenger's trip.
The rounded exits at the Syracuse and Atlantic City, N.J., airports prevent passengers from backtracking into secure areas once they exit the plane and keep outsiders from entering through the exits. Travelers step into the elevator-sized cylinders and wait as a door slides closed behind them. After a couple of seconds, another door opens in front with a female voice coolly instructing, "Please exit."
"I don't understand those doors," says Cindy Katz, of Jupiter, Fla., who came through the Atlantic City airport for the Thanksgiving holiday. "What are they supposed to do? It slows everyone down."
They could be the wave of things to come as the Transportation Security Administration prepares to shift exit-monitoring duties to local airports next year as a way to save $88.1 million. The doors' manufacturer, New York City-based Eagle Security Group, Inc., says it is in talks with other airports.
The technology saves airports from having to put paid security staff at the exit checkpoints. Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who is pushing to keep the TSA in charge of exit monitoring, says such staffing could cost Philadelphia International Airport about $2 million a year.
Syracuse Aviation Commissioner Christina Callahan, whose airport installed eight portals this past fall at a total cost of about $750,000, says staffing each exit with a guard would cost about $580,000 a year.
"So when compared with the cost to install the portals, they will have paid for themselves and begin saving the airport money in little over a year," Callahan said.
"Certainly funding is limited for staffing," she said. "Airports are going to have to find other ways to keep up with mandates."
In Atlantic City, the manpower savings from the portals are estimated at $300,000 a year, South Jersey Transportation Authority spokesman Kevin Rehmann said. The airport has had a version of the exits since about 2009, but upgraded its five portals last year as part of a $25 million terminal renovation.
The portals are intended to remove the potential for the kind of human error that was blamed for a 2010 breach that shut down a Newark Liberty International Airport terminal for several hours and caused worldwide flight delays after a Rutgers graduate student slipped under a rope to see his girlfriend off on her flight.
On recent evenings in both Syracuse and Atlantic City, there did not appear to be any sign of backups caused by the roughly five-second process of entering and exiting through the portals. Signs encouraged travelers to enter the pods in groups --they can accommodate up to six people at a time -- rather than one by one.
"It went smoothly," says Robert Beech, who arrived back home in Syracuse on a flight from New York City. "Just had to wait for the doors to open and close. Even with carry-on, pull-behind bags, you can still get through there without having to worry about bumping into things."
Mindy Carpenter, of Cortland, who was waiting for friends to arrive from Washington state, says she wasn't a fan of the doors.
"It just took so long for the four of them to come through," she said.
The appearance of the exits in Syracuse provoked a blogger to label them "detention pods" in furtherance of a police state.
Aviation security expert Jeff Price calls the criticism unwarranted.
"It doesn't do anything to you. There's no privacy intrusion. All it does is prevent a backflow of people," said Price, a professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver. "It's not conducting a National Security Agency check or something."
A common question among passengers is whether they are being scanned somehow while closed inside. While it is possible to equip portals with biometric scanning technology, officials say the current versions do nothing but form a barrier between the secure and nonsecure areas of the airport.
"We're not scanning anything or doing anything really," Rehmann said. "When one side's open, the other side's closed. Period."
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