The US government is introducing segregation into airport security lines. And many travellers seem to like it.
In an effort to ease traveler anxiety and maybe even improve airport security, the Transportation Security Administration is rolling out a new setup where fliers are asked to self-segregate into different screening lanes depending on their security prowess. There are lanes for ”Expert Travellers,” who know the drill cold; ”Casual Travelers,” who run the airport gauntlet infrequently; and people with small children or special needs who move slowly through screening.
The idea, akin to how ski resorts divide skiers by ability, was suggested to TSA by focus groups of fliers. The agency didn’t think it would work, says TSA chief Kip Hawley, but a test showed travellers liked the idea, and it had some benefits for security screening. So TSA has now rolled it out in 12 airports, from Seattle to Boston, dubbing the program ”Black Diamond,” the name it uses for expert lanes, borrowed from the ski-resort term for expert trails. More ”Black Diamond” setups are coming.
”You have to see it to believe it,” Mr. Hawley said. ”It has improved the flow and calm at the checkpoints.”
Not everyone is a believer. Some travelers say they find the TSA’s regime confusing. Signs are unclear about which category people fall into, they say, and whether or not this is a new mandatory rule, like removing your shoes and carrying liquids in 3-ounce containers. (Answer: It’s voluntary.)
”Not enough travelers know what’s going on, so people just follow the guy in front of them. It’s the herd mentality,” said Chris Riegel of Dayton, Ohio, a software company chief executive who has been through the Black Diamond setup in Salt Lake City and Dallas.
Some road warriors also get angry at the notion of special lanes for different people – when families and people in wheelchairs end up in shorter lanes, for example. Others say they simply cut to whatever looks like the shortest lane, ignoring the TSA’s request to segregate. ”The concept is good, but I think if it’s uncontrollable, it’s not as effective as it should be,” said Dot Persampire of New York, who went to the Expert Traveler lanes in Orlando but was disappointed to see families standing in the same lines.
To be sure, the new setup won’t by itself alleviate traveler frustration with the TSA. Pablo Dominguez of New York says he stood for several minutes in an Orlando security line last week while TSA screeners chatted among themselves. ”Everything is up to the guys working on the line,” he said. ”The problem is not the passengers. The problem is the TSA.”
In Orlando, the third city to get the new setup, TSA officials say Black Diamond has improved customer service. ”Throughput” – the number of passengers who go through screening per hour – is up slightly because of the new configuration, and the screening area has gotten calmer. That actually enhances security, the TSA says, because a calm, quieter area makes nervous people who might be up to no good stand out. The TSA has placed a heavy emphasis on behavior detection, and indeed, it was in Orlando last month that behavior-detection officers spotted a suspicious man found to have the makings of a pipe bomb in his luggage, along with bomb-making literature.
”It’s all working much better than we expected,” said Lee Kair, the TSA’s federal security director in Orlando.
The TSA says it doesn’t care if people jump to a different lane – in fact, officers often route people to shorter lanes to speed up throughput. And the agency doesn’t really care how people identify themselves. ”We’re finding people pick the lane most appropriate – where they feel most comfortable,” Mr. Kair said. ”People can go through with the least amount of aggravation.”
Putting families and people with special needs like wheelchairs into separate lanes allows them to relax a bit without road warriors pushing them to move faster. As a result, they set off fewer ”nuisance alarms” because they prepare better and get metal, shoes and liquids properly into X-ray bins. The family lanes move slower than lanes moved before the change, on average, but many families seem to like the pace.
”Awesome. It was great,” said Autumn Mousser, traveling with her 20-month-old at Dallas Love Field last week.
With slower-moving passengers segregated, Expert Traveler lanes do move faster – 30 percent to 40 percent faster in Orlando than the average lane moved before the change, Mr. Kair said. ”The reason why this is working is because it’s really simple,” said Mr. Kair. ”It didn’t take millions of dollars in new technology. It’s just signs and stanchions.”
Many frequent travelers say they’ve long wished the TSA would set up lanes designated for people who know how to move through security quickly. ”I’m a big fan. I love it,” Darren Eastman of Dallas said of the Expert Traveler lanes. ”For people who travel a lot, security has become second-nature, and they are able to get in and get out quick.”
Some do question the TSA’s signs, which list five qualifications to use the Expert Traveler lanes: expert at procedures, ready with items removed, fly greater than twice a month, travel light and member of elite-level frequent-flier program. But the signs don’t say whether you must meet any or all qualifications. (No one actually checks them.) Casual Traveler signs say those lines are for fliers with multiple carry-on bags – but most road warriors have multiple bags, too. The TSA says it is studying the signage issue, and may make changes.
The Greater Orlando Airport Authority is pleased with the program, currently only at its east checkpoint, and supports expanding it to the west checkpoint, airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell says. Denver International Airport is perhaps a bit less enthusiastic, saying it hasn’t seen any increase in overall throughput as a result of the program. Family lanes handle fewer people per hour than lanes handled before the change, and expert lanes handle a few more per hour. ”So things even out,” spokesman Chuck Cannon said. Denver doesn’t have any plans to discontinue the program, he said.
From its early inflexibility, the TSA is now trying new ideas, deploying new equipment and giving screeners new training. But new projects can sometimes confuse – some road warriors question whether the Expert Traveler lanes duplicate the idea of ”Registered Traveler” lanes being established at an increasing number of airports, for example. Under the Registered Traveler program, fliers pay an annual fee to companies such as Verified Identity Pass Inc.’s ”Clear,” undergo a government background check and are issued an ID giving them access to lanes designated for their use.
”It seems like there’s no consistent message or strategy,” said Mr. Riegel, the Dayton software executive. ”If Clear is going to work, why do you need Expert Traveler? Just pick a strategy and stick with it.”
The TSA’s Mr. Kair says the Expert Traveler lanes are not competing with Registered Traveler, which still provides advantages such as a separate entrance into security and no long lines. Clear’s founder, Steven Brill, says he doubts the Black Diamond program will speed up overall throughput – or slow down sales of his service. ”That program has had no impact on us at all,” he said.