CHECKPOINT CHOKE POINT?
Security delays vary wildly, sometimes within same airport
By Thomas Frank
MIAMI — At Miami International Airport, one of the busiest security checkpoints has only four lanes and frequent crowds.
Passengers can't unload their laptops and cellphones at the metal detector until screeners hand them plastic bins. The airport has no room to add more lanes — or tables for removing items — to speed up lines.
“I prefer to fly out of Fort Lauderdale,” software engineer Dominik Buszko says as he inches through a serpentine checkpoint here. “Every time I've been here the lines are long.”
In contrast, security lines move quickly for passengers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. That's largely because, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the airport teamed with its largest carrier, Northwest Airlines, to expand screening from eight to 17 lanes.
“We didn't want to have the checkpoints be a choke point,” airport director Steve Wareham explains.
The different experiences at Miami and Minneapolis airports illustrate one of the most confounding and frustrating phenomena of post-9/11 air travel: the wild variation in the time it takes to get through security.
Some airports have longer lines than similar airports. Many of the nation's busiest airports are among the most efficient when it comes to moving passengers through security. And some checkpoints have substantially longer lines than checkpoints just a concourse away. In Miami on May 13, passengers waited for 21 minutes at one checkpoint, but only for a minute at another.
Surprisingly, the length of airport lines isn't as random or unpredictable as some travelers may think, a USA TODAY analysis of more than 5 million government records shows.
The data, collected from June 2004 through mid-May of this year, indicate that the amount of time passengers spend in lines often is determined by conditions that are apparent to airport and security officials but nonetheless can be difficult to fix:
•Peak problems. Many long lines occur when a large number of flights leave one terminal at about the same time. Lines have been dramatically shortened when airline schedules were “de-peaked” to avoid having many flights take off within a short time. But many airlines don't want to change flight schedules, fearing they will lose passengers.
•Airport size doesn't matter. Long security lines aren't simply a product of busy airports; how airports handle — or don't handle — the crowds makes a dramatic difference. Regional airports in Columbia, Mo.; Florence, Colo.; and Kodiak, Alaska, for instance, have lines exceeding 20 minutes more frequently than any other airport. And some of the nation's busiest airports — San Francisco, Detroit and Houston's George Bush Intercontinental — seldom have long lines.
•Growing pains. Long waits often occur in crowded terminals where the architecture of the airport prevents security lanes from quickly being added. Problems sometimes occur in terminals occupied by growing airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue or by multiple carriers whose flight schedules overlap. “The airport was not designed to do what we are doing,” says Rick Thomas, security director at the Miami airport. “It's a physical space constraint.”
•Same place, same time. Most long lines occur at the same airport checkpoint and at the same time each day. At many of them, the inability to add lanes because of limited space means there's no solution. Other long lines come with the seasons. Some airports see crowds only during tourist seasons, such as spring break, for instance.
Most airports — about 75% — almost never have lines with wait times exceeding 20 minutes, the newspaper's analysis shows.
But the Transportation Security Administration still does not meet the goal set forth by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in the months after the terrorist attacks: to process passengers within 10 minutes or less. (The TSA has since abandoned the 10-minute goal.) On average, air travelers faced lines of more than 10 minutes about 6% of the time. At major airports during peak morning travel times, security lines exceeded 10 minutes 14% of the time.
The newspaper used TSA records that track the amount of time passengers spent in lines at checkpoints in every U.S. commercial airport. The times are recorded every hour and every half-hour during the busiest times of the day. The TSA uses the data to locate problem checkpoints and help determine the number of screeners who should be assigned to each airport.
Steps taken so far to shorten security lines have been “the easy fixes,” airport consultant Mark Lunsford says. “And the next increment of improvement is going to be quite expensive because major construction will be needed.”
But until that work is done, Lunsford warns that with a rapidly growing number of air travelers pressing through checkpoints, “there's going to be an outcry against waits that will end up pressuring the TSA to compromise security.”
Some screeners have already felt pressure to “expedite the screening process at the expense of security,” says Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department's former inspector general, who heard such complaints “time and time again.”
But such allegations were never proved, Ervin says. “You can't conclude anything about security based solely on the lines.”
The TSA says screeners are trained — and urged — to inspect passengers and bags thoroughly. And the agency says it has shortened lines over the last year and is meeting a goal different than the one Mineta set in 2001: having an average wait of 10 minutes at each airport each day.
Even so, that leaves tens of thousands of air travelers waiting each day in security lines that last longer than 10 minutes. At Philadelphia International Airport, for instance, security lines exceeded 10 minutes 17% of the time. The airport's solution? It plans to add 10 checkpoint lanes by June 2007, spokesman Mark Pesce says.
Bob Ellis, the TSA security director at Philadelphia, says that won't automatically solve all the airport's problems. Unless it gets additional screeners, it will have to shift screeners from one checkpoint to staff new ones. Congress has limited the TSA to employing 45,000 screeners. Airlines cause some security backups by not having enough workers to check boarding passes of passengers, Ellis says.
“If we increase the number of lanes … we're either going to need better technology to increase the passenger throughput or you're going to need to increase staffing,” Ellis says.
Expanding the number of security lanes, properly staffed or not, doesn't necessarily mean the end of long lines. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport eliminated many long lines by adding screening lanes and installing long tables at the front of checkpoints. That gives passengers time to remove metal objects so they are ready to walk through a metal detector when it is their turn.
The airport saw lines shorten further in February when Delta Air Lines, its largest carrier, redistributed its flights so they left at more-regular intervals instead of being bunched around peak hours.
But from February through mid-May, the main security line at 7:30 a.m. was longer than 10 minutes on two-thirds of the days, the newspaper's analysis shows.
“You cannot get it lower,” Hartsfield manager Ben DeCosta says. Airport checkpoints are not designed to eliminate lines during the busiest periods. “You never build a cathedral for peak Sunday morning,” DeCosta says.
Airport consultant Gloria Bender says shortening lines is a complex task that involves opening the right number of screening lanes at the right time. Airports must have enough security lanes and screeners to operate them. And security directors must know which lanes to open by understanding when flights will leave and when travelers will get to an airport.
That helps explain why some of the shortest lines are found at airports or terminals dominated by a single airline. The airline can control passenger flow by spreading its flights evenly throughout the day. It also will more readily pay for checkpoint expansion, says Bender of consultant TransSolutions.
The cost of the expansion in Minneapolis, about $250,000, was covered by Northwest Airlines, which accounts for about 80% of the airport's traffic.
At San Diego International Airport, lines at the Southwest Airlines concourse exceeded 10 minutes about half as many times as lines did at the three other main concourses, the newspaper's analysis shows. Those other three concourses serve multiple carriers. Southwest is the airport's largest airline, and screener Cris Soulia says security managers “bend over backward to make sure they get all the manning they need.”
Other major airports with short lines and a dominant airline are Detroit, Charlotte, Dallas Love Field and Houston's Intercontinental and Hobby airports.
“When you own that terminal and have the cream of your business travelers coming through there, you've got every incentive in the world to make that (checkpoint) go as smoothly as possible,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.
At terminals with multiple carriers, “those people legally can't even talk to each other to coordinate schedules,” says Stephen Van Beek, policy director of the Airports Council International.
Checkpoint expansion is done more easily in some airports than others.
“If you're a larger airport, you're likely to have more of a construction budget to do a checkpoint construction project,” says Bender, the consultant.
At Minneapolis, it was simply a matter of converting some ticket counters into security lanes.
“That's just the luck of the architecture,” airport spokesman Patrick Hogan says. “A lot of airports didn't have the structure in place to accommodate the new security very well.”
But at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C., there's little short-term solution to the early-morning lines that regularly exceed 10 minutes. The airport has no room to add security lanes, and no leverage to change airline schedules, which have a huge peak at 6 a.m. to get travelers to hubs.
“The airlines pick the times they wish to leave,” airport executive director Edward Johnson says. “There's not much we can do until we get a new (terminal) area opened” in January.
Some airports have focused on trying to speed up security lines, often through creative methods.
In May, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport officials installed plastic-bag dispensers along every checkpoint line along with signs directing travelers to put keys, cellphones and shoes inside. The airport spent two weeks testing bags of different size, color and sealing mechanism before choosing clear, two-gallon, drawstring bags that are see-through, big enough to hold shoes and easily grabbed.
Jim Crites, the airport's executive vice president of operations, says passengers now go through each security lane at a rate of 230 people per hour, up from 177 per hour and above the TSA's goal of 200 people an hour.
At Denver International Airport, lines shortened dramatically last fall and stayed short, even in March, the airport's second-busiest month. Only 2% of the airport's lines were longer than 10 minutes in March, compared with 23% in September, the newspaper's analysis shows.
Screener Misty Gonzales credits a policy change that allows passengers who set off a metal detector to remove metal objects and walk through the detector again instead of being hand-searched by a screener. Hand searches slowed security lines because if several screeners were doing them simultaneously, there wouldn't be enough screeners to operate the main checkpoint and the line would be stopped, Gonzales says.
“That used to happen 10 times in a half-hour,” Gonzales says. “Now it's a lot faster"