TSA line
We've all been there Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

4 Ways the TSA Could Really Speed Up Airport Security Lines

Jul 29, 2014

The Transportation Security Administration needs your help. The organization that scans your bags and invariably yanks your spouse out of line for the hairy-eyeball treatment when you are late for a flight desires to do something about wait times. I’m presuming that the TSA wants to make the lines shorter. Maybe I should double check.

This doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult goal in some respects. Here’s the way the TSA worked at the Delta terminal at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport on a busy afternoon the last time I was flew: There were two positions open to check IDs and three screening lines for bags and people. The line was nearly out the door. I’m no math expert, but I’m thinking that increasing the number of screening lanes by one increases throughput by 33%. Just a guess.

Increasing capacity—that is, adding ID checkpoints and scanning lanes—or at least manning all available lanes, seems like the most obvious way to shorten the lines. But that would involve spending more money, and Congress has proven again and again that it cares little for the flying public, which helps explain the current state of flying.

So instead, TSA is trying to crowdsource a solution. It is looking for someone or some group that can create the Next Generation Checkpoint Queue Design Model. Your model will have to incorporate the TSA’s (very successful) Pre Check program, along with plans to accommodate coach, business/first, crew and special needs passengers. Do that successfully and the TSA will reward you. The agency is handing out $15,000 in prize money for the best ideas, including a $5,000 top prize.

Glad to help:

Ban mobile phone calls in the queue. People who talk on the phone while simultaneously trying to get out their laptops and take off their shoes ought to be shot, but I’m willing to merely silence them to speed things up.

Start a Spirit Airlines line. Passengers on ultra-low cost carriers like Spirit and Allegiant are, let’s say, inexperienced at air travel; okay, hopeless. Even with their own line, they’ll still take forever.

Make every airline charge more for using the overhead bins than for checked baggage. Higher fees=fewer bags=shorter waits. Stop hating me. In an ideal world, all baggage would go underneath—for free—and show up 10 minutes after landing.

Fine the TSA for delays. Airlines get fined, so why not the TSA? If it takes me more than 20 minutes get through, the TSA is not doing its job right.

Have a giant, discount health and beauty store at every airport. No need to bring all that product in 3-oz. bottles. Just order in advance and buy’em at the airport, cheap.

There is indeed a science to lines, whether it’s applied to supermarkets, tollbooths, amusement parks, fast food joints, or in the bakery chain Le Pain Quotidien in my office building, where the front end system was designed by people who think dentistry isn’t painful enough. The science is known as queuing theory, and it was invented in 1909 by Danish physicist and mathematician A.K. Erlang to try figure out the optimal size of a central telephone switch to accommodate the most customers most of the time. One of queuing theory’s later advances is something called Little’s Law, expressed as L = λW , where L is the expected number of users in a queuing system, W is expected time in queuing system per user, and λ is the arrival rate. Seems easy, right?

Nope. The TSA’s problem is far more complex because it’s not a steady state system—it ebbs and flows based on the time of day and number of flights, among other factors. “The math gets really hairy, really fast,” says Dick Larson -- “Dr. Q” -- who teaches queuing theory at MIT. “No human knows how to derive the actual equations.”

Companies like Disney use simulations even before they create rides to try to predict the lines, says Larson, but the math attached to security lines is surely beyond the TSA. “I wish them luck,” he says.

Larson believes that half of the problem in queuing is psychological. People are stressed out about making their flights, about their cranky kids, about setting off an alarm and being groped by TSA agents. Larson’s suggestion for improving matters isn’t mathematical, it’s behavioral. “The key idea is stress reduction versus duration reduction,” he says. “If you can reduce the stress, the complaints would plummet.”

That could be done by guaranteeing that people who arrive at the security line within the airline’s minimum will make their flights, for instance. Diversion may help too. In post World War II New York, office workers in skyscrapers often faced long waits for elevators. The solution wasn’t more elevators, which was not possible. Instead, landlords mirrored the walls at the elevator banks; complaints dropped as worker bees had something to take their minds off the wait.

You can’t do that in airports, but maybe there’s a similar approach. Comedians? A brass band? Magicians? Or how about security-line mimes? Then passengers would have something to hate more than the TSA and the airlines.

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