Getting rid of lines at airport security

Why are there lines at airport security? I mean, we know why the lines form, when passenger load exceeds the capacity, with the bottleneck usually being the X-ray machines. The question is why this imbalance is allowed to happen?

The variable wait at airport security levies a high cost, because passengers must assume it will be long, just in case it is. That means every passenger gets there 15 or more minutes earlier than they would need to, even if there is no wait. Web sites listing wait times can help, but they can change quickly.

For these passengers, especially business passengers, their time is valuable, and almost surely a lot more costly than that of TSA screeners. If there are extra screeners, it costs more money to keep them idle when loads are low, but the passengers would be more than willing to pay that cost to get assuredly short airport lines.

(There are some alternatives, as Orwellian programs like Clear and TSA-PRE allow you to bypass the line if you will be fingerprinted and get a background check. But this should not be the answer.)

In some cases, the limit is the size of the screening area. After 9/11, screening got more intensive, and they needed more room for machines and more table space for people to prepare their bags for all the rules about shoes, laptops, liquids and anything in their pockets.

Here are some solutions:

Appointments at security

The TSA has considered this but it is not widely in use. Rather than a time of departure, what you care about is when you need to get to the airport. You want an appointment at security, so if you show up at that time, you get screened immediately and are on your way to the gate in time. Airlines or passengers could pay for appointments, though in theory they should be free and all should get them, with the premium passengers just paying for appointments that are closer to departure time.

Double-decker X-ray machines

There may not be enough floor space, but X-ray machines could be made double decker, with two conveyor belts. No hand luggage is allowed to be more than a foot high, though you need a little more headroom to arrange your things. Taller people could be asked to use the upper belt, though by lowering the lower belt a little you can get enough room for all and easy access to the upper belt for all but children and very short folks.

A double width deck is also possible, if people are able to reach over, or use the other side to load. (See below.)

This might be overkill, as I doubt the existing X-ray machines run at half their capacity. It is the screener’s deliberation that takes the time, and thus the next step is key…

Remote X-ray screeners

The X-ray screener’s job is to look at the X-ray image and flag suspect items. There is no need for them to be at the security station. There is no need for them to even be in the airport or the city, come to that. With redundant, reliable bandwidth, screeners could work in central screening stations, and be sent virtually to whatever security station has the highest load.

Each airport would have some local screeners, though they could work in a central facility so they can virtually move from station to station as needed, and even go there physically in the event of some major equipment failure. They would be enough to handle the airport’s base-load, but peak loads would call in screeners from other locations in the city, state or country.

Using truly remote screeners creates a risk that a network outage could greatly slow processing. This would mean delayed flights until text messages can go out to all passengers to expect longer lines and temporary workers can come in — or the outage can be repaired. To avoid this, you want reliable, redundant bandwidth, multiple screener centers and the ability to even use LTE cell phones as a backup. And, perhaps, an ability to quickly move screeners from airport to airport to handle downtimes at a particular airport. (Fortunately, there happens to be a handy technology for moving people from airport to airport!)

Screeners need not be working a specific line. Screeners could be allocated by item. Ie. one bag is looked at by screener 12 and the next bag is looked at by screener 24, just giving each item or set of items to the next available screener, which means an X-ray could actually constantly run at full speed if there are available staff. Each screener would, if they saw an issue, get to look at the other bags of the same passenger, and any bag flagged as suspect could immediately be presented to one or more other screeners for re-evaluation. In addition, as capacity is available, a random subset of bags could be looked at by 2 or more screeners.

It can also make sense to just skip having a human look at some bags at random to reduce wait and cost. It might even make sense to let some bags go unviewed in order to have other bags be viewed by 2 screeners. Software triage of how many screeners should look at a bag (0, 1, 2, etc.) is also possible though random might be better because attackers might figure out how to fool the software. With the screeners being remote and the belts operating at a fixed speed, passengers won’t learn who was randomly selected for inspection or not.

Some screeners need to be there — the one who swabs your bag, or does an extra search on it, the one who does the overly-intimate patdown and the one with the gun who tries to stop you if you try to run. But the ones who just give advice can be remote, and the one who inspects your boarding pass can be remote for passengers able to hold those things up to the scanners. I suspect remote inspection of ID is also possible though I can see people resisting that. The scanner who looks at your nude photo can certainly be remote — currently they are out of view so you don’t feel as bothered.

This remote approach, instead of costing more, might actually save money, especially on the national level. That’s because the different time zones have different peak times, and remote workers can quickly move to follow the traffic loads.

It’s also easier with remote screeners for passengers to use both sides of the belt to load and get their stuff. Agents would have to go in among them to pull bags for special inspection, though.

Of course it could be even better

Don’t misunderstand — the whole system should be scrapped and replaced with something that is more flyer-friendly as well as more capable of catching actual hijacker techniques. But if it’s going to exist, it should be possible to remove the line for everybody, not just those who go through background checks and fingerprinting just to travel.

After 2001, a company developed bomb proof luggage containers and now there is a new bag approach which would reduce the need to x-ray and delay checked luggage as much as they do. They were never widely deployed, because they cost more and weigh more.

I have 3 things I carry on planes:

  1. The things I need on the plane (like my computer, books and other items.)
  2. The vital and fragile things which I insist not leave my control, such as my camera gear and medicines.
  3. When I am not checking a bag, everything else for short trips.

I’m open to having all but #1 being put into a bomb-proof container by me and removed by me in a manner similar to gate check, so I can assure it’s always on the plane with me. Of course if I’m to do that then security (for just me and the items of type one) must be close to the plane — which it is for many international flights to the USA. That would speed up that security a lot. The use of remote screeners could make it easier to have security at the gate, too.

Personally, once the problem of taking over the cockpit was solved by new cockpit doors and access policies, I think there was an argument that you need not screen passengers at all. Sure, they could bring on guns, but would be no longer able to hijack the aircraft, so it’s no different from a bus or a train. Kept to small items, they would not be able to cause as much damage as they could do with a suitcase sized bomb in the security line. The security line is, by definition, unsecured, and anybody can bring a large uninspected roll-aboard up to it, amidst a very large crowd — similar to what happened in Moscow in 2011.

Instead, you would have gates where a portal in the wall would have a bomb-proof luggage container into which you could put your personal bags and coats. Most people would then just get on, but a random sampling would be directed to extra security. Those wishing to bring larger things on-board (medical gear, super-fragiles, mega-laptops) would need to arrive earlier and go through security too. A forklift would quickly move the bombproof container into the hold and the plane would take off.

Parallel luggage

Perhaps improved confidence in logistics and endpoint deliveries – via active tracking and robots dominating every stage – could make it easy for most luggage to travel separately.

There'd be a robot porter pickup (even before leaving for the airport), then transfer to drone planes (perhaps traveling between secondary airports). Each step could shed safety/security/delays that'd be needed for humans... so luggage still arrives at your final lodging hardly any later than you.

A much smaller number of things then need be carried, or dropped into the gateside bombproof-hold (which sounds a bit more like how underside bus luggage areas are loaded).

I love me some robots

And I do eventually expect that to happen more, but I am describing in this post what we might to today.

Sadly, there are two kinds of “gate check” in the world today. One happens typically when you get on a small plane that can’t take rollaboards, and it has stairs from the tarmac, and you put your bag on a shelf yourself and that shelf seems to go into the plane and come out, and you get your bag at the bottom.

The other gate check happens when the overhead bins are full and you have to leave your bag at the end of the jetway, and they take it down. Sometimes it gets checked to your final destination (no option) and sometimes it appears at the top of the jetway when you get off. But then, they handle it like other checked luggage though it doesn’t go as far, and some important equipment of mine got broken that way — I found out a month later, unfortunately, when I took the bag on another trip and had to drive back an hour to get a working unit.

So never again. My fragiles, my essentials, they don’t get gate checked unless I am the only human to handle it. But it’s possible to make that work if we want to.

The limit is the number of SCREENERS, not the number of stations

I have yet to see a security checkpoint that didn't have a station standing idle. Double the number of people running the lines and you'll double the speed.

Both

Well, you have never seen one without an idle station, but at “rush hour” they are there for a reason. However, yes, most of the time the bottleneck is the screeners.

The reason for the double-decker X-ray plan is that at some airports, the limit is/was the size of the security zone. Zones designed or redone after 9/11 are now huge — in some airports they took away other facilities to expand security. The biggest win at first was just to have more table space so people could sort their stuff into the bins. Once you have enough table space the limit is indeed the X-ray screener.

In my plan, as long as there are enough screeners anyway in the country, you could keep the X-ray machine going full speed. In fact, if you are willing to tolerate secretly not viewing some of the bags, at random, you can keep the machine going no matter what. This does present a problem where an attacker would know that the busy time is the best chance of getting a random pass, but you can arrange it so that some airports get full screening and other, randomly chosen airports, get less. But even with random screening, the attacker is taking a big risk that they will be caught. In addition, any coordinated plot like 9/11 is sure to be caught because all of them won’t get a random pass. Plus, if you are a leader and one of your guys is caught, the FBI will immediately be checking out all of that guy’s connections.

In addition, unlike random screening at the station, passengers would never know if they got scanned or a pass. In fact, if it’s something really bad, TSA might not stop them until they leave the security area. If it’s a “I am not sure what that is, we need to take things out of the bag and put it through again” flagging, then you want to do it at the security area.

Central screening facility

Just putting all the X-ray screeners into a central screening facility at the airport so their workload can be more efficiently spread across all the gates seems like a fairly simple thing to do, and a major win. I'm surprised no one's doing this already, or at least working on it, especially when the body scanner screeners are already not physically present at those machines.

Any kind of network outage issues for the screeners in a central screening facility are equivalent to other network outages for the whole airport. Losing network connectivity to the check-in counters would bring an airport to just as much of a screeching halt. Sure, some people arrive pre-checked in, but just look at the lines at the check-in counters to see how many people who don't, or who have special needs. And they're not going to have planes take off with only the pre-checked in passengers on them.

As for a combination of bomb-proof luggage containers and secured cockpit doors leading to the elimination of security checkpoints and allowing passengers to just walk on to the plane as if it were a bus or a train, there's no way that this would ever be done. Without going through security at all it would then be fairly easy for a bad actor to get something onto the plane that is able to defeat the cockpit door, and then you've got a hijacking and a potential 9/11-style flying bomb. Besides that, there's lots of money being made by security equipment vendors and the whole employment and training process. It's a whole little industry unto itself, and there are surely paid lobbyists in Washington working to look out for their interests.

Not totally unscreened

I am not talking about complete screening, but much less. The truth is, by 9:30am on 9/11/01, the hijack and fly into building plot no longer worked, even after they had taken the cockpit. Nobody is going to get away with a hijacking, unless they have something with them to kill all the passengers and crew. Not saying they might not smuggle that on, but it’s harder.

It harder *now*...

...but then you're suggesting "much less" screening, which would make it easier again. So we're back to the current level of screening.

Different order of weapons

9/11 was done with boxcutters, but today no weapon at all will work by intimidation. Passengers, ready to believe that if they give in to the hijacker they are dead, have little to lose in at attack. You need a weapon that lets your group defeat all of them. A big machine gun or some mass killing weapon. Not impossible, but really hard, with almost any level of scrutiny. And if all you can take on is a tablet and a small bag, it’s a tall order. People with lots of gear — including parents with lots of baby gear — would have to come earlier to be screened. For the rest it’s a simple metal detector, like in buildings. Now there remains the question of what to do on connecting flights. More thought needed but the world has to get past its paranoia over stopping things on planes that are no different from them happening on trains or buses.

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