U.S. transportation agency experiments with new airport checkpoint system

Monday, June 9, 2008
NEW YORK: The Transportation Security Administration is trying to speed up airport screening by asking passengers to choose a line based on their checkpoint skills. But human nature being what it is, this approach may hit its own snags: people typically opt for the shortest line and everybody thinks they're an expert.

"In theory it's a good idea - it lets people say, 'This is my comfort level,"' said Steven Frischling, a photographer from Connecticut who has 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."

Although some business travelers would like to see a line labeled "clueless" - for passengers wearing heavy metal jewelry and carrying hidden bottles of soda - the TSA has come up with other ways to label its "self-select" security lines, all based on a ski slope metaphor.

The new system, which has been introduced at 21 U.S. airports, has a black diamond line for expert travelers, defined as those who are skilled at security procedures, always ready with items removed and fly more than twice a month; 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 the appropriate line for their situation. The reality has been more mixed, according to travelers who have experienced the new lines since they were introduced in February in Salt Lake City and Denver.

Frischling said he has gotten stalled in the expert line behind travelers who did not, in fact, know or at least follow the rules. He cited one man who seemed unaware of the agency's edict limiting liquids to three-ounce bottles packed in clear Ziploc bags.

"He gets up there, doesn't have his license out, has bottles over three ounces, they were not in the plastic bags," 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 TSA's blog, other travelers have had positive experiences with the new lines. Kevin Gross, an attorney from San Francisco, said he used the family lane at Oakland airport recently and found it less stressful to deal with the security process while traveling with a child.

"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 comment complaining 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 with anyone taking more time.

Ellen Howe, a spokeswoman for the TSA, said one of the goals of the new system is to minimize some of that tension and generally help calm the security checkpoint. 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 lane.

"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 the checkpoint and fewer employees calling in sick at airports that have starting using the new system, she said. It is up to each airport to decide whether to adopt the self-select lines, but Howe said she expected that all three New York area airports would make the switch, beginning with in June or July.

The agency is also taking other measures to improve - and ideally speed up - the screening process, including purchasing new X-ray machines that offer better views of scanned bags.

"The technology at the checkpoint really hasn't improved much since the 1970s," Howe said, adding that the new machines offer high-definition views of a bag from multiple angles. More than 200 of these "advanced technology" 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 the checkpoint, 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 the X-ray machine or examined on screen 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." Villalobos said he has studied aircraft boarding procedures as well as ways to decrease waiting times at crossings on the United States and Mexican border. Applying lessons from the border research 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 taken advantage of the black diamond "expert" lane that has been operating there for months.

That is because 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," Jones said, noting 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."

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