In his 9 April post on this website ANU Professor Ramesh Thakur put the question: Who Will Bell the Sydney Airport Security Madness? The expert on disarmament then asked:
Is it possible that pranksters with a perverse sense of humour are in charge of security procedures at Sydney InternationalAirport? Perhaps they are trying to test the limits of traveller tolerance.
Sorry Prof, you’re wrong. They’re not pranksters, but schadenfreudes; they love the kicks from exercising powers prohibited elsewhere without years of training and subject to checks.
Travellers accept that security is essential at airports everywhere. How it’s handled differs remarkably. Being tough and rude doesn’t enhance the objective – safety for all.
That’s what happens at Los Angeles international terminal according to many bruised by the experience. Now the LA virus has flown to Sydney. It may well be coursing through other Australian concourses, though that hasn’t been my experience.
Australia’s biggest city prides itself on being direct and its residents brash. Like all one-liners it’s flawed. Most Sydneysiders are friendly. Though not at the entrance and exit gates where the slogan should be – and maybe is – Spoil Their Day (STD).
You’d expect that in stern-faced Singapore, a city where security is serious. Yet Changi immigration desks have lolly bowls so visitors can suck before they see the sights. It’s probably the only freebie in the world’s most expensive state, but it softens the bad taste of Orchard Road over-pricing.
Professor Thakur claims the ‘typical personnel on screening duty are not the most sophisticated judges of character. Rather, they tend to be of low education with minimal training.’
As an academic he should know, but the recruits are doubtless well taught and scrutinized, with snowflakes rapidly shown the exit. In Power Tactics 101 they’re reminded it’s a sackable offence to make eye contact with passengers lest they see tired and stressed fellow humans.
It’s the same advice given to workers in abattoirs; do not peer into the liquid optics of the bovines; they know what’s to come having smelt the blood of those ahead in the queue. Pity has no place in a slaughterhouse – or Kingsford Smith.
Staff at other airports are inexpert, way behind. Some say: ‘Good morning – please remove your laptop. Thanks.’ Or ‘let’s have a quick look in your bag dear, the X-ray is showing a little something.’ Such approaches guarantee cooperation. Sydney orders: ‘Is this your bag? I’ll open. Stand back. Don’t touch.’
Imagine if nurses and doctors took the same approach. ‘Strip. Now. Get on the table. Keep your mouth shut and legs open.’ Hospitals are also big and busy but employees are usually courteous.
In New Zealand’s capital Wellington flights regularly arrive after midnight but staff tend to be friendly even when fatigued. There’s a skill in making a demeaning process acceptable to ensure cooperation, but that’s a foreign notion in Sydney.
The whole airport has been contaminated and needs fumigating. Even the duty free shops. My wife was brusquely told the whisky limit was one bottle per person and had the other snatched away until she explained she wasn’t traveling alone.
I asked an idle airport official about the train to town. ‘Wouldn’t know, mate.’ ‘So who does?’ He walked away.
Advice: Seek a blue-jacketed volunteer Airport Ambassador. They are usually public- spirited retirees who ‘bring a sincere and caring attitude to Australia’s busiest airport which helps provide a positive experience for all visitors’. The fact that they’re necessary proves how bad the employees have become.
How did it get to this? First let’s blame the Prime Minister. Five years ago as Immigration and Border Protection Minister, Scott Morrison announced the establishment of the Border Protection Force.
He could have labelled it an ‘agency’ or ‘unit’ or even ‘service’, but instead chose the authoritarian ‘force’ with its connotations of muscle, coercion and intimidation. Not the desk you’d approach if your child gets lost in the arrivals hall – you’d probably get arrested for failing to pay due care and attention.
The uniforms could have been light grey or blue and still looked official – yet the government selected black, the fashion choice of dictators. It also makes the wearers excessively hot, which may explain their surliness.
The other fault is technology. Cameras scan faces so there’s no need for BFs to physically confirm whether the passport number matches the object standing below. Is it pulsing real or a bloodless line of code masquerading as a mortal? That might accidentally prompt a ‘G’day – just checking,’ – a reportable misdemeanour.
Professor Thakur wonders ‘how many potential threats have (security procedures) detected that would not otherwise have been caught?’ That would be a statistic worth sampling, but the answer would probably be ten million nail clippers and tubes of sun cream.
More than 42 million people pass through Sydney Airport every year. Handling such numbers is a task tough to digest. It would be made more palatable – and effective – with a pinch of courtesy and a sprinkle of smile.
Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in Indonesia.