Whether it’s bringing on extra workers or taking crowd control tips from Disney World, everyone’s got an idea when it comes to dealing with the long lines snaking their way through America’s airports.
Airlines, the airports themselves, the Department of Homeland Security and passengers all agree: something must be done — and quickly — about the interminable security checkpoint backups now commonplace at many U.S. airports.
The biggest challenge may be getting everyone to agree on a fix.
Last Friday, the heads of DHS and the Transportation Security Administration laid out a ten-point list of line-cutting strategies, including hiring 768 more TSA officers, maximizing overtime use and assigning additional K-9 teams to the busiest airports.
And on Tuesday, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said the agency has asked airlines “to consider possibly eliminating the checked baggage fee to encourage people to check their luggage rather than putting it in the carry on."
That same idea was floated in a letter sent last week to a dozen major U.S. airlines by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey, who wrote that, “Without charges for checking their bags, passengers will be far less likely to carry them on, which snarls screening checkpoints and slows the inspection process.”
U.S. airline companies, which together earned $3.8 billion in checked bag fees in 2015, really hate that idea.
“Encouraging passengers to check more bags would actually exacerbate current checked baggage screening issues that are resulting in passengers missing their connections and having their bags delayed,” said Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for trade organization Airlines for America. “Even at [Chicago’s] Midway, served predominantly by an airline that doesn’t charge bag fees, wait times are in excess of 90 minutes, further demonstrating that this problem is not a result of bag fees.”
A4A is predicting a record 231.1 million passengers will fly on U.S airlines between June and August 2016. The organization agrees with many other industry groups that TSA should increase staffing and equipment at airports and do more to market and register travelers in the TSA PreCheck program and other expedited screening programs, such as Custom and Border Patrol’s Global Entry program.
A4A is also urging passengers to “alert fellow passengers and the TSA” about long lines at airports by tweeting their airport code and wait time to @AskTSA using the hashtag #IHateTheWait.
In some cities, airlines and airports are already loaning staff and hiring temporary contractors to do support tasks for TSA, allowing the agency to open more security lanes.
At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Wednesday, temporary contractors hired by American Airlines began helping with non-essential screening functions like moving bins and managing the lines of waiting travelers.
“This is not a permanent fix,” said American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein. He said the airline is also hiring temporary contractors to help at LaGuardia Airport, and at other hubs and gateways including Miami, Phoenix and Charlotte.
Delta Air Lines’ employees have been helping staff security lines at a number of its hub airport for several weeks, said airline spokesman Michael Thomas.
Ninety full-time equivalent temporary private contractors hired by Seattle-Tacoma International Airport start work on Monday, and will be on duty through September helping to manage security check lines.
Other strategies being floated or explored include replacing TSA employees at the checkpoints with private contractors and adopting some line-management techniques pioneered by Walt Disney's theme parks.
Twenty-two airports currently have private screening companies that operate checkpoint screening under TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, which requires compliance with all existing TSA security screening procedures.
But bringing on more private contractors isn’t a feasible short-term fix. TSA has 120 calendar days to approve or deny an airport’s SPP applications, and up to 12 months from the application date to award a contract to a qualified vendor. That doesn’t help passengers who just want to get on with their summer vacation.
Another idea being discussed is a reservation system for the security lines, much like Disney’s FastPass, which allows park visitors to reserve times for attractions and entertainment. One airport — in Canada — says it’s already using a similar system with success.
Montreal-Pierre Elliot Trudeau International uses a SecurXpress program that sends passengers a text message containing an appointment time for going through a designated security line.
This helps the airport “modulate traffic at peak times and makes the whole process more seamless for everyone,” said YUL spokesman François-Nicolas Asselin, and is currently being used by up to 500 passengers a day.
Checkpoint reservation systems, and policies that allow families with small children and passengers in danger of missing their flights move to move to the front of the line, could help ease tensions on airport security lines, said Richard Larson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s sometimes known as “Dr. Queue.”
But he says the circus entertainers, therapy ponies, live music and free snacks some airports are offering to those waiting in long checkpoints lines could backfire.
“It works for Disney in the amusement parks,” said Larson. But passengers who miss flights due to long checkpoint lines may end up being more furious “because they’ll feel like they were being distracted from what’s really important — getting on the plane.”