The Transportation Security Administration is unveiling separate airport security lines for three different kinds of travelers. Enlarge this image. When it comes to air travel, are you a green circle, a blue square or a black diamond?
The federal Transportation Security Administration is hoping that a new self-classification system will alleviate the unpredictability and frustration associated with long airport security queues. The new system — which could be in place in at least one of the three major airports in the New York region by the end of this year — relies on customers to sort themselves into three groups, each assigned a color and shape:
Green diamond, for families with small children and strollers, groups, travelers needing special assistance and travelers new to flying.
Blue square, for casual travelers who are familiar with T.S.A. procedures and have multiple carry-on bags.
Black diamond, for “expert” travelers who are well-versed in T.S.A. procedures, are “always ready with items removed” (no metal, no shoes), fly more than twice a month and travel light. “Elite” frequent flyers are included in this category.
In Chicago, where the new system was introduced at Midway, the smaller of the city’s two airports, last month, the system seemed to be working smoothly when I flew back to La Guardia Airport after spending the Memorial Day weekend there. I put myself in the “black diamond” lane and fairly breezed through the screening, even though there was only one machine assigned to the lane. In contrast, most of the travelers seemed crowded into the blue-square lanes, which were handled by several screening machines and attendants. I couldn’t really see over to the green-circle area.
Over all, I was impressed by the efficiency of the system. (However, the airline misrouted my checked bag to Atlanta, and when I got it back, a camera had been stolen. But that’s another story.)
In an editorial, however, The Chicago Tribune expressed some skepticism about the system. “Travelers are free to pick the line they think they belong in,” the editorial stated. “And we fear that almost everyone will come to believe that they belong in the fast lane.”
The editorial continued:
We hope the Midway experiment works. It will, if air travelers are scaldingly honest when facing the choice of line. If not, may we suggest that because the security staff won’t force slower travelers into the green lanes, the lines must police themselves. Peer pressure, in other words. A few gentle words to that mother of three should guide her toward the easy lane. A few less-gentle words should shame those who willfully overstep and hold up the black diamond lanes. Our advice for those who aren’t sure of themselves: If you don’t want your psyche to end up black and blue, choose the green.
Ellen Howe, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, part of the United States Department of Homeland Security, said that passengers have been generally quite sensible about assigning themselves to a line.
The program began as an experiment in Salt Lake City in February and was introduced in Denver and Boston in March. According to Ms. Howe, the program has now been extended to the airports in Spokane, Wash.; Orlando, Fla.; Cincinnati; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Portland, Ore.; William P. Hobby Airport in Houston; Pittsburgh; Milwaukee; Love Field in Dallas; Midway in Chicago; San Diego; Los Angeles; Tulsa, Okla.; Lubbock, Tex.; Minneapolis; Boise, Idaho; and San Jose, Calif. (where there is only a separate line for families, until construction is completed on a new terminal).
The new system was “something we decided to try, based on some feedback from business travelers not wanting to get mixed in with families traveling with kids,” Ms. Howe said in a phone interview. “Conversely, moms traveling with kids do not want to feel like they have a business traveler breathing down their neck.”
Whether to implement the new system is up to the federal security director at each airport. It is not clear when, or if, La Guardia, Kennedy and Newark airports will adopt the system, but officials seemed reasonably confident that at least one of them would this year.
“All three New York area airports have expressed interest in the self-select program and T.S.A. is in the process of working with stakeholders,” Ms. Howe said in an e-mail message.
Is it clear to passengers how to sort themselves? And has the system actually expedited the security process?
At some of the bigger airports where the system has been in put in place, “we’re definitely having someone out front to direct traffic a bit,” Ms. Howe said. “What we have seen anecdotally is that the through-put is generally improved in that faster lane — the ‘expert’ lane — because those people know the drill. In the slower lane it tends to be a little bit slower to go through, which we expected, but the alarm rates are going down because the people have time to compose themselves properly.”
The new system does not affect any passenger’s chance of being selected for a secondary search. By sorting passengers according to their familiarity with the array of T.S.A. procedures — shoes off, laptops out, gels and liquids in clear plastic bags, boarding pass in hand — the system is supposed to give security personnel more time to examine the behavior of passengers and notice if anything suspicious happens.
But Ms. Howe said the system was also intended to have some psychological effect as well — providing some comfort, however small, to anxious passengers.
“Part of the frustration people have with the security process is that they feel they don’t have control,” she said. “This gives some control of the experience back to the traveler. It’s actually been pretty well-received.”
So: Are you a green circle, a blue square or a black diamond? And if the program comes to New York, do you think it will work?