Sunday, December 26, 2010

Flying and Tech

Flying and Tech
- by David Matthews 2

Over the past ten years, there have been two things that have been on the steady increase… airport security and personal technology.

Airport security has had to go on the increase because of the ever-present fear of terrorism. This has required passengers to be inconvenienced as they take off their shoes, their coats, their belts, and also take special considerations to make sure that their personal technology doesn’t get damaged from those same enhanced security measures.

Quite recently, this author had to take a trip to Oklahoma City to visit with a radio station that I work with. Having been taken to the airport extremely early to avoid hassles with security and the various check-in times, not to mention having my return flight delayed six hours due to weather, I had the opportunity to check out some of the provisions that the airports in Atlanta and Oklahoma City have for personal technology. The two airports that I visited were Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, and the Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. (Fortunately these were both direct flights, so there were no layovers.)


As far as security goes, despite the media hype about pat-downs and body scanning, both airports I visited were using enhanced device-detection equipment, but not the “see through your clothes” scanners. This still required the removal of your coat and shoes, but it also meant removing my belt, watch, ring, and emptying my pockets of everything, even my wallet, pocket change, and plastic comb.

Most of the equipment I brought with me was in my computer carrying case or in my pocket. This consisted of my laptop computer, cellphone, Bluetooth earpiece, and a thumb drive for my data. Additional equipment, such as my plug-in electric razor and the chargers for my cellphone and earpiece, were checked in with my luggage.

When going through the security line, they provide a series of plastic bins for you to put in all of the items that have to be screen separately. Sensitive equipment like laptops and cellphones are not scanned for obvious reasons, and you are required to take your laptop out of the case. A good suggestion for travelers is to put all of your sensitive equipment (including thumb drives) in the same bin to keep them all together. Make sure this is the very first bin (or bins) scanned. And make sure you keep an eye on it after you go through it yourself to make sure that you recover everything you scanned. Due to the large volume of people that have to go through the system, it is very easy to forget something in the rush, and in both flights I heard announcements of personal belongings left behind.

Unfortunately, while both airports made accommodations for the large volume going INTO the security screening area, they fell painfully short in providing accommodations for passengers LEAVING the same area.

WiFi Access

Both airports offered wireless network access for “convenience”. While this sounds like a good service for people with laptops, when I searched the networks at Will Rogers Airport, it was listed as “unsecured”. This is not good for Internet users, and in fact some recent news stories have suggested that hackers have been taking advantage of airports providing this service to go after your personal laptop information.

Unfortunately any kind of security improvements that would make this service usable could easily be countermanded by the quest to keep the airport “safe”. So it is best to not take them up on this offer.

Kiosk Service

Another service that I saw at both airports was a kiosk for Internet access. This wouldn’t be too bad for a quick access for news or sports scores, but when it comes to personal email, even web-based email services, this would be extremely risky.

First, there is no way to make sure that your personal information wouldn’t be collected, and one should presume that with a public service like this, there would be NO privacy whatsoever.

Second, these kiosks aren’t free. They do want you to pay for the service, which means putting in your credit or debit card in there, and that is risky as well. Besides, most airports have free TV service that provide basic news, weather, and sports scores, and let’s not forget the mainstay of an airport - the newspaper stand. So there really is no need to use the kiosk for those reasons.

Tech Store

One feature that Hartsfield had at the airport terminals was a specialty store for the tech-friendly traveler. Here one could get battery chargers, replacement earphones, spare portable hard drives, and pretty much anything else that you would need for your cellphone, laptop, PDA, Blackberry, or iPhone that you may have forgotten about or got lost in your travels.

This is actually one of the better ideas for airports to include along with the array of fast-food franchises, book-and-memento stores, and the terminal bar to get people drunk before their flights. With more and more tech-friendly travelers bringing their equipment with them on the plane, there exists a great opportunity for merchants if they know how to market it right.

The one thing that I noticed, though, was the high-dollar value on some of the devices for sale. While I could see travelers getting a spare battery or some thumb drives for their laptop, I really don’t see them getting video projectors at an airport.

Tech-Friendly Areas

Finally we get to the biggest part of the airport experience… waiting around. Whether it is because you had to arrive incredibly early to avoid the traffic, or if you were forced to wait while your flight was on hold due to the weather (and I had to endure both), the terminal gate at both airports were FAR from friendly for passengers waiting for their flights.

Sadly, airport gates were never really designed for people who had to wait for any length of time. Every gate at every airport that I’ve been to have all been identical in terms of the same padded bleacher seats, an occasional table, and absolutely no place for a traveler to plug in a laptop. That’s good if your wait time before boarding was maybe ten or fifteen minutes. NOT if you’re held over for two hours.

That means if you want to set your laptop down and work on that project you need to finish, you have to go to one of the food courts or airport lounges so you can use their tables. Either that or try to find some way to get comfortable with the laptop on your lap… which, despite its name, is not always easy to do. Even then you’re at the mercy of your laptop’s battery.

Fortunately, Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport has tech-friendly stations at their food court area in the middle of their terminals. These are bar-style eating areas with power strips running down the middle of the counter; perfect places for you to charge up your cellphone or to use your laptop without running down the battery.

Hopefully other airports can follow Hartsfield’s example in this regard, especially given the demand being made for travelers to check in earlier and earlier, plus the additional time needed to get through security. They don’t necessarily have to revamp their terminals, but to have someplace where people could sit down, plug in their electronics, and work while they wait to board their flights would certainly make the experience tolerable.


David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in the greater Atlanta area. He is a longtime computer user and has been involved with computers since the 1980’s. This article can be distributed freely provided that it is unaltered and all proper credit is given to the author.

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