Last updated: 03:00 PM ET, Tue July 12 2016

Will Airlines' Security Checkpoint Upgrades Finally Shrink Wait Times?

Airlines & Airports | Transportation Security Administration | Josh Lew | July 12, 2016

Will Airlines' Security Checkpoint Upgrades Finally Shrink Wait Times?

After being hit by delays and cancellations caused by excessive TSA wait times earlier this year, American Airlines has taken matters into its own hands. The airline is working with TSA to install new security lanes at some of its busiest hubs. 

There are some important questions surrounding this project. Will these new lanes really help? If they do indeed increase efficiency, how long will it be before they are widely used? 

The short answer: if airlines get their way, the changes will come relatively quickly. 

30 percent faster

Early results of the “lane changes” could give travelers reason to hope. 

Delta undertook a project similar to American’s planned upgrade at its Atlanta hub earlier this year. It installed automated checkpoints that were dubbed “smart lanes.” According to TSA director Peter Neffenger, checkpoint efficiency has improved by 30 percent since Delta’s new lanes were opened in May. 

American Airlines plans to open lanes similar to those in Atlanta in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Dallas. Each airport will get two lanes. The project will cost the airline around $5 million. 

How will this help? 

The new “smart lanes” that are already operating in Atlanta have enough space so that five people at a time can fill bins with their laptops, shoes and pocket change. They will then push the bins onto a longer automated conveyor. This means that there is no need to manually push the bins onto the scanner one at a time. 

The bins use radio tracking so that passengers don’t have to wait their turn to pass through the metal detector or body scanner. 

30 percent improvement in wait time for a relatively minimal investment seems like a good deal for American and Delta, who have both lost millions because of passengers being delayed at TSA checkpoints over the past few months. At one point, American even had to bring cots into the terminal at O'Hare to accommodate fliers who missed the day’s last flight because of two-hour-plus wait times 

Read More: Airlines Want Government to Return Diverted TSA Funding

How long before smart lanes are universal?

TSA has said that if the smart lanes prove successful, they will install them at other airports. Because of their past inability to follow through on promises to increase efficiency, in the end it may be up to airlines to push these upgrades through and provide the funding for them. 

Also, since only two lanes are being installed at each airport, fliers could still find themselves waiting at a standard checkpoint. 

The good news is that Delta was able to install the smart lanes in Atlanta in about two months, so the upgrades can happen relatively quickly once airlines and TSA decide to go ahead with them. 

Another important upgrade being tested

Though it is receiving less media attention, a different security checkpoint upgrade could actually prove more important when it comes to speeding up the screening process. American is testing CT (computer tomography) technology to scan carry-on baggage.  

CT scanners, which are already being used to scan checked baggage, create 3D images of bags’ contents. The detailed pictures could make it possible for passengers to leave laptops, gels and liquids inside their carry-ons instead of having to remove them during screening. 

The CT testing will take place at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Like the smart lanes, if the pilot program proves successful, CT scanners could start to trickle into other airports. 

Airlines have leverage to push for these improvements

After being hit by excessive delays, airlines have started taking matters into their own hands by pushing for and funding checkpoint upgrades. It seems like TSA has no choice but to go along with these upgrades if it wants to silence the criticism and end the increasingly loud calls for privatization. 

As long as they are making profits, airlines will most likely continue to push for security improvements. For fliers who are tired of the long lines, this is certainly a positive trend. 


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