By Monique Garcia and Jon Hilkevitch
8:33 PM CDT, May 8, 2008
Travelers at Midway Airport zipped through security lines in five minutes or less Thursday morning, with many becoming instant fans of a new classification system that made getting through the airport security more bearable.
"This is good stuff," said Clinton Booth of Atlanta, who was heading home from a Chicago business trip. "I've always preferred Midway to O'Hare because it's faster. But it's flowing even quicker now. I love it."
New signs, color-coded like those at ski resorts that warn of the difficulty level of slopes, are directing passengers to one of three lines—a green circle for beginners, a blue square for intermediate travelers and a black diamond for advanced passengers. Travelers pick the line that fits their experience level, or security workers direct them to the appropriate one.
The goal is to reduce tension and frustration at security checkpoints and speed up the process for at least the experienced travelers who know to whip off their shoes and remove laptops from carrying cases without being told. Improving the efficiency of the process also allows security agents to better scrutinize carry-on items and the behavior of passengers, officials said.
For many, Thursday was their first experience with the new system, which has been rolled out at about a dozen other airports. While several travelers initially looked baffled by the color-coded lines, it didn't take long to catch on. Workers helped steer flip-flop-wearing vacationers one way, and briefcase-toting business travelers the other.
Moms and dads hauling the accouterments of parenthood—strollers, diaper bags and car seats—were funneled in yet another direction.
"We're getting a lot of great feedback from people who say this is really expediting things," said LeVanche Johnson, transportation security manager. "We usually try to get people through in about 10 minutes. But today, we're seeing the average wait time is about five minutes or less."
At the security checkpoint, the biggest difference seemed to be the noise. Expert travelers worked in near-silence, whipping out their laptops for inspection with no instruction. In the family line, some parents needed more instruction on folding down strollers and placing them on the conveyor belt.
Shannon Spicer, who was traveling with her 2-year-old son, Liam, said she liked being able to take her time without other travelers breathing down her neck.
"That family lane is cool," she said, taking off Liam's shoes and letting out a sigh of relief as she unloaded a car seat strapped to her back. "It's pretty awesome."
"Casual" traveler Bonnie Shaner of Hinsdale said she was glad to see security officials taking a common-sense approach to what many consider a hassle.
"Any time you have categories, it speeds things up, instead of lumping everyone together," she said.
Although things appeared to be running smoothly Thursday morning, Nancy Morgan of Chicago was skeptical about how the system would work in the future. Morgan said she fears that because the system relies on self-classification, some might think they are "experts" when they really aren't. "In theory, it could work out well. But I'm afraid you'll have more people thinking they're experts because they think it's faster and they'll start jamming it up," she said.
The TSA is talking with airlines about bringing the program to O'Hare, perhaps as soon as this summer.
By reducing angst among passengers rushing to board planes, officials said they expect the new format to produce an added benefit: The security agency's newly deployed behavior-detection officers may find it easier to discern jittery travelers from criminals or potential terrorists casing out an airport or intending to cause harm, they said.
The behavior detection officers are trained to pinpoint passengers displaying extraordinary stress and fear, or signs of deception during questioning, officials said.