Frequent fliers who face morose officials, long queues, intrusive probing and the prospect of their travel plans blowing up in the face of officious immigration bureaucrats might soon shave a few minutes off this experience at OR Tambo International Airport.
Airports Company SA (Acsa) wants to halve the average time spent in airport security lines. This comes as the business sector closely watches the effect congestion at SA’s busiest airport has on the bottom line, and at a time of some turbulence at Acsa itself.
OR Tambo general manager Bongiwe Pityi says Acsa is piloting the use of full body scanners until January, as well as carousel scanning for luggage that is similar to the carousels from which passengers collect their belongings post-flight.
"The international waiting time in terms of airport security is 10 minutes," says Pityi. "At all our company-owned airports we adopted a five-minute waiting time, [and] with this technology we hope to meet that."
The system will mean metal detectors are no longer used, and passengers will probably not be required to remove laptops from their bags or undergo invasive body searches. The body scanners will use an avatar of the scannee, and identify areas on a computer-generated body image that require further investigation.
But the system could be costly. Because Acsa is still facing uncertainty over airport tariffs — a final determination is expected by the end of 2016 — it is problematic to plan for operational improvements .
Acsa COO Tebogo Mekgoe says such projects carry some risk, which is difficult to explain to authorities.
Speaking to the Financial Mail, Mekgoe says the cost of the pilot system is R35m, including all equipment and training, with feasibility studies to be conducted. In the case of the scanners, all significant role-players, including airlines, have been involved from the beginning.
From a regulatory side, those determining the tariffs will not look at a specific project, and such security improvements will be integrated into Acsa’s plans as a whole, Mekgoe says. "They wouldn’t necessarily evaluate the project on its own; they are evaluating it as a business model."
Acsa is tight-lipped about concerns over festive-season congestion, as well as internal investigations into alleged supply chain management irregularities after a forensic probe fingered top executives. Last week Acsa suspended three executives pending disciplinary hearings, though CEO Bongani Maseko remains in his position pending further investigations.
Despite attempts at operational efficiencies, Acsa is facing the prospect of additional festive-season congestion.
This, along with confusion over requirements for travellers to have abridged birth certificates for minors, could have cost SA R7.5bn in tourism revenue between July 2015 and July 2016, the Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) estimates.
The council estimates that queuing for immigration at OR Tambo from October 1-18 2016 took up to four hours, causing multiple flight delays and about 800 passengers to miss their flights. At present, not more than 40% of immigration counters can be filled by home affairs personnel, and some passengers have complained on social media of seeing only one or two desks operating at a time. Home affairs’ own implementation of new technology was being "impeded by the austerity measures imposed on the department by national treasury, to the effect that no further recruitment of human resource capacity is authorised for the foreseeable future," says home affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni.
TBCSA CEO Mmatšatši Ramawela says progress is being made in addressing the issue. "There is an appreciation ... of a need to sort out this shortage issue," she says.
TBCSA, which has met with treasury and the tourism department, has proposed its own short-term measures "to mitigate the impact of queuing". These include using ushers to assist those standing in queues and help with luggage issues, and the provision of entertainment, food and beverages to those in queues.
Numerous other long-term proposals have been made, and some progress is expected in the next two weeks, says Ramawela.
What it means: Acsa hopes to halve the time passengers spend in security lines.