Smarter Security at Manchester Airport

9 August 2010 (Last Updated August 9th, 2010 18:30)

Manchester Airport is now home to some of the most high-tech security gates in the UK. Alex Hawkes looks at how the airport is leading the way in security technology.

Smarter Security at Manchester Airport

Security gates have historically been viewed as a necessary inconvenience by passengers. The predictable queues, the unflattering 'pat-down' search by security staff and the subsequent scramble to collect hand luggage, have all combined to make security gates the most dreaded part of an airport experience.

Identifying this, the UK's Manchester Airport has spent the past few years developing and introducing new technologies which it hopes will give passengers a refreshing sense of enthusiasm when faced with the prospect of passing through its security gates. As the largest airport outside of London, Manchester is widely perceived to be the international gateway to the north of England, but it is also quickly establishing a reputation for pioneering new airport technologies.

It made the news this year for its ongoing trials of full-body scanners. The scanners, which use x-ray technology to produce an outline image of a person's body in order to detect concealed and potentially dangerous objects, were first introduced at the airport's Terminal 2 towards the end of 2009 and added to Terminal 1 earlier this year. Although the device offers a much higher level of security than traditional 'pat down' methods, its perceived infringement on passenger privacy has occasionally caused sensationalist headlines.

Undeterred, the airport recently installed new 'smart' gates, which replace conventional archway metal detectors with automated glass doors that effectively fast track passengers requiring a body search. Passengers walk through the gates and stand in a holding area, where metal detectors dictate which door they take next. If the passenger is cleared, a door opens within two seconds and they can proceed onwards. If, however, an alarm sounds, a different door opens and the passenger is led towards the full-body scanners or for a traditional 'pat down' by security staff.

Currently, only limited areas provide both smart gates and full-body scanners, but this combination could eventually be adopted throughout the airport – a move which could make it the first in the world to stop searching passengers by hand.

Ebb and flow

"Our new gates help utilise our staff's time while reducing the passenger queues."

Manchester's customer service director Mike Fazackerley says he believes the smart gates are proving beneficial to both passengers and airport staff. "In order to cope with the ebb and flow of the metal detector alarms, the pat-down search element of the process at security gates is often overstaffed. The officers are therefore either very busy or have nothing to do. Our new gates help utilise those officers' time while reducing the passenger queues that occur as a result of conventional pat down search methods," Fazackerley says.

"What this system does is enable passengers that have set off the metal detector to queue separately to be searched, allowing other passengers to pass by who don't require intervention.

"It also means we have been able to halve the number of officers deployed at one time for hand searches, so the system actually pays for itself very quickly."

Manchester Airport first began working with manufacturers to make the smart gates a reality 18 months ago. The airport eventually selected the turnkey solutions specialists Macdonald Humfrey Automation (MHA) over competing x-ray manufacturers as it believed technical automation expertise was required for the project.

An early prototype of the gate was trialled at the airport last summer, followed by a full production trial during the winter and a complete roll-out of the technology across all three terminals in April of this year. Each gate typically took ten days per security lane to install and a team of MHA technicians were initially on hand at the airport to ensure the machines quickly operated to the required standard.

"Part of the trial included consumer testing and the response from passengers was very positive. It's an entirely new experience for them but one that is very instinctive and straightforward. What we have found is that when throughput at the gates is congested, passengers will watch the person in front of them and follow suit. During quieter periods, we therefore tend to have staff on hand in case anyone needs assistance," says Fazackerley.

"The system has additionally helped staff improve control of the security gate area. In an interesting twist, they have also noticed the glass panels help reduce noise and therefore make the environment feel a lot calmer."

The greatest advantage of the smart gate, though, is undoubtedly when it works in conjunction with the full-body scanners. With just three currently, however, the majority of security gates still rely on hand searches.

"Along with the full-body scanners, we have introduced automated tray-handling systems and multiplex x-ray systems."

"The gates are simply a process management tool and don't make any difference to the search process. When you replace the traditional pat-down procedure, however, with the body scanners, that is when there is a considerable difference," says Fazackerley.

"If a passenger is selected for further action by the gate and then proceeds straight to the body scanners, you can witness first-hand how the system fits seamlessly together and speeds up the entire security gate process."

Specialist camera systems

There is also potential for the gates to be more than just a process management device. Manchester Airport has taken a preliminary look at installing specialist camera systems within the gates, which could be used to scan passengers for explosive ingredients. The controlled environment within the gate system makes it an ideal candidate for installing similar technologies in the future.

"The gates are part of a package of improvements to security areas at Manchester Airport, which are becoming collectively known as 'smart' security. Along with the full-body scanners, we have introduced automated tray-handling systems and multiplex x-ray systems, which all help to address efficiency and improve customer experience throughout the entire security process," Fazackerley says.

"While it is nice to be recognised as leading the way with security technologies, we really are in the market for ideas that will improve the overall passenger experience. We have always viewed security as an integral part of the customer experience and by improving our security processes, passengers will arrive to our departure lounges in the right frame of mind to shop and relax before they begin their journey."