The Situationist

Archive for June 17th, 2011

Lining Them Up, and Knocking Them Down

Posted by Adam Benforado on June 17, 2011

A couple weeks ago, I published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the situation of the dreaded airport security line after I contacted the TSA with a few questions about their operations.  The text of the op-ed appears here and below:

Hate Airport Security?  Get in Line.

What is the single most frustrating thing about the airport? Most people would agree that it’s the security line, which presents us with a terrible tandem of unpredictability and uncontrollability.

Each airport is different. Some separate expert travelers from novices; others provide priority lines for those with first-class tickets. Latecomers who are going to miss their flights will be readily shuttled to the front at a few airports, while many others stand firm in the face of tears and tantrums.

Even at a single airport, you never know what you’re going to get. I recently flew out of Philadelphia on US Airways on consecutive Thursday evenings. The first time, I was through security in 10 minutes and had time for a drink. The second, it took more than an hour and I nearly missed my flight.

As another summer travel season begins, it’s time for travelers to take a stand. The system is broken, and it needs to be fixed.

Before we get to a solution, it’s useful to understand how the current system works. Most people assume that the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for the security lines, but the agency has generally deferred to the authority of airports and airlines when it comes to managing the queue before the checkpoint. As a result, a hodgepodge of practices has developed, many of which serve the interests of the carriers rather than the travelers – for example, special lines for customers who pay extra fees.

It has never made sense for the security line to have more than one master. It’s time to put it firmly in the hands of the TSA, which is most likely to have the right priorities: security, fairness, and efficiency. And once the entire process is the responsibility of that agency, there are many ways it could improve the speed and civility of the system without compromising safety.

Any effective system would provide fliers with more information and choice. As just one example, imagine an airport with three security lines: general, priority, and express. At the beginning of each line is a constantly updated sign that shows the anticipated wait time and a price to enter that line. Just as a person mailing a package is provided with an array of estimated delivery dates and corresponding prices at the post office, a traveler at the airport could be provided with similar facts to facilitate a free, informed choice.

Always arrive early for your flight and want to travel at the lowest possible cost? Choose the free “general” line. Get caught up at a meeting and arrive at the airport 25 minutes before departure? Swipe your credit card and join the “express” line.

To keep the lines moving optimally, computer programs could regularly alter the prices of the priority lines, much as the fees for using express toll lanes on certain highways can be varied according to congestion. The necessary technology already exists.

In our current, inflexible system, the late-arriving passenger is often out of luck. At the same time, other passengers collectively shell out millions of dollars in fees for access to priority lines that they turn out not to need. These problems could be eliminated with an approach that allows customers to decide what is best for them at the moment it matters.

Moreover, all the money paid into such a system would go to the TSA instead of airline executives. That would reduce the tax burden borne by those who fly as well as those who don’t, at a time when the government is trying to tighten its belt.

Airline and airport lobbyists are likely to strongly oppose this sort of sensible proposal, but its time has come. We weary travelers deserve better.

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