This is the age of mass good design -- at Starbucks, at Target and even at McDonald's, which is trying to upgrade those plastic-heavy restaurants that evoke the days of leisure suits. Against this bright backdrop, the security checkpoints in U.S. airports form a glaring, albeit understandable, exception.
Obviously, their prime function is to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That role has to remain paramount. Anything that compromises it is unacceptable. But here we are, five years later, and the checkpoints are as user-unfriendly as ever.
They included Chicago's Helmut Jahn, architect of the acclaimed United Airlines Terminal at O'Hare International Airport; Tom Chambers, an airport specialist at Jahn's firm, Murphy/Jahn; and Carl Galioto, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's New York office, who has worked on several airport projects.
The architects raised the following issues:
fWhy not provide a chair or two so travelers can sit down like human beings and comfortably untie their shoes before they go through the lines? That way, people wouldn't be forced to wear loafers when they travel.
fWhy not have a soothing recorded voice tell travelers what to do instead of having TSA screeners yell at them?
fWhy not provide something a little nicer than the cheap plastic tubs into which travelers must dump their pocket change?
fWhy not rethink the metal detector/X-ray machine layout so people who get flagged because they make an innocent mistake that sets off the metal detectors, such as wearing a big belt buckle, can move to a second set of machines before enduring a full-scale search?
Why not, in short, factor the traveler's experience, not just the screener's convenience, into the design equation and ditch the one-size-fits-all approach that seems to be a specialty of Washington bureaucracies?
Here's a modest proposal: The American Institute of Architects should join with the Transportation Security Administration, which controls the checkpoints, and hold an ideas-oriented design competition. It would seek better design approaches for the harsh little gateways to the sky that millions of travelers are forced to endure every day.