At Airports, Lines Made for Speed
The Transportation Security Administration is trying to speed up airport screening by asking passengers to choose a line based on their familiarity with checkpoint procedures. But human nature being what it is, this approach may hit its own snags: people typically opt for the shortest line, and all think they are experts.
“In theory, it’s a good idea. It lets people say, ‘This is my comfort level,’ ” said Steven Frischling, a photographer from Connecticut who encountered the new system in Salt Lake City and Boston. “The problem is, when people show up, everyone thinks they know how to get through security.”
The agency is using a ski slope metaphor for its three new “self-select” security lines.
The system, which has been introduced at 21 airports and is coming soon to New York, has a black diamond line for expert travelers, defined as those who fly more than twice a month and are skilled at security procedures, always ready with items removed; a blue square for casual travelers, who are familiar with the screening process; and a green circle for families and those needing assistance or more time.
The idea is that passengers will select appropriate lines for their situations. The reality has been mixed, according to travelers who have used the lines, which were introduced in February in Salt Lake City and Denver.
Mr. Frischling said he had been stalled in the expert line behind travelers who did not, in fact, know or at least follow the rules.
One man seemed unaware of the agency’s edict limiting liquids to three-ounce bottles packed in a clear plastic bag, he said.
“He gets up there, doesn’t have his license out, has bottles over three ounces, they were not in the plastic bags,” Mr. Frischling said. “It was almost like watching a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit.”
While there are plenty of similar anecdotes on travel message boards and even the agency’s blog, other travelers have had positive experiences with the new lines. Kevin Gross, a lawyer from San Francisco, said he had recently used the family lane at the Oakland airport while traveling with a child and had found it less stressful.
“I think the family lanes are a big improvement,” he said. “You don’t want to hold people up, but you know it’s going to take you a longer amount of time. It’s nice to know people who can move through faster can pick a different line.”
Indeed, for every anonymous Internet commenter who complains about runaway toddlers and contraband liquids in diaper bags, there is a retort from the leisure set about harried business travelers who exhale audibly, tap their feet and otherwise express their impatience.
Ellen Howe, a spokeswoman for the agency, said one of the goals of the system is to minimize some of that tension and generally help calm security checkpoints. While there has not been a formal study to determine whether the self-select lines reduce waiting times, she indicated that this seemed to be the case with the diamond lanes.
“Anecdotally, what we are seeing is that with the black diamond lane, the expert lane, the throughput is going up,” she said. “With the green lane, the family lane, the throughput is a little slower.”
The agency has also noticed a decrease in alarm rates at checkpoints and fewer employees calling in sick at airports using the system, she said.
It is up to each airport to decide whether to adopt the self-select lines, but Ms. Howe said she expected that the three New York area airports would make the switch, beginning with Kennedy International and La Guardia this month.
The agency is taking other measures to improve — and ideally speed up — the screening process, including purchasing X-ray machines that offer better views of scanned bags.
“The technology at the checkpoint really hasn’t improved much since the 1970s,” Ms. Howe said, adding that the new machines offer high-definition views of a bag from multiple angles. More than 200 of these machines have been installed so far, and the agency expects to have 600 in place by the end of the year.
When it comes to determining what causes bottlenecks at checkpoints, it is possible that the X-ray machines — and the agents who operate them — are as much of a contributing factor as unprepared passengers.
Rene Villalobos, an industrial engineering professor at Arizona State University, said that based on his observations, bags that need to be sent back through X-ray machines or examined onscreen by a second agent seem to slow things down.
“Of course, I have not done a formal study,” he said. “But what I see very often is that the X-ray machine is the thing holding up the whole process.”
Mr. Villalobos said he had studied aircraft boarding procedures as well as ways to decrease waiting times at border crossings of the United States and Mexico. Applying those lessons to airport security checkpoints, he said, “People are going to go to a shorter line, especially if they’re self-selecting.”
Savvy travelers also have a knack for finding ways to avoid inconveniences like long lines, especially at their home airports.
Ceri Jones, a marketing executive for a technology company, frequently flies out of Salt Lake City International Airport, but so far has not used an expert lane there. She typically avoids the long security line at the main terminal, a Delta hub, and goes through security at a less-trafficked terminal.
“The trick is that if the Delta line is immensely long, you either go to the international terminal or the old terminal,” Ms. Jones said, adding that she used this strategy for a flight to Phoenix last week.
“When I went to the old terminal, there were seven people in line, as opposed to 300,” she said. “So it’s sort of like my own diamond lane.”