updated 3/16/2010 3:06:34 PM ET 2010-03-16T19:06:34

On a recent trip through the Philadelphia airport's recently overhauled Terminal E, I — and a lot of other travelers — pulled up short at the entrance to the security checkpoint lines upon seeing signs for "Expert Travelers" and "Casual Travelers."

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The signs are part of a new TSA initiative to get travelers to self-select the security lane that will allow them to proceed through the checkpoint "at their own pace" and skill level. The Black Diamond Self Select Lane program, which started in Salt Lake City (hence the ski-centric stylings), has now expanded to 51 airports nationwide. And the TSA is not being shy about the deployment of the program, as participating airports include JFK, LAX, Newark, Atlanta, Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports, SeaTac, SFO, Philadelphia, Dallas/Fort Worth, Orlando, and other high-profile, high-volume airports.

In a time when the TSA surely comes up with some cockamamie ideas, the Black Diamond Self Select Lane program is an admirably common-sense approach to a technical and logistical challenge that is all too human in practice; to up-end the old saying about the French, "Securing people would be great if it weren't for the people."

So is it working? Let's say the jury is out. While there are some encouraging statistics (as I will explain below), there are also some signs that the program may leave many travelers even worse off than they were before.

See the signs, they’re everywhere
The TSA, which has never shown much of a knack for PR, could really use some help getting the word out about this pilot program. It's been kicking around since 2008, and at the two airports I visited this past week that have the program, you would think the TSA came up with it last weekend.

In the airports I visited, the designations were Expert Traveler (black diamond), Casual Traveler (blue square), and Families and Those Needing Assistance (green circle). Rather than checking the signs and confidently picking a lane, nearly all of the travelers I witnessed stopped dead in their tracks, heads spinning from one sign to the next, scanned their boarding passes for some clue as to where they should go, and then made a choice based on who knows what. Additionally, on my first pass through, I did not notice a lane for families or those needing assistance. As the lane for folks who need the most help, this should probably be the most visible lane; the fact that it was easy to miss doesn't bode well for the TSA's efforts to avoid confusion.

8 things airlines won’t tell youWhile the idea seems simple and promising, the language used by the program is unfortunately confusing and somewhat self-defeating. Even the TSA can't decide; if you view the information on the TSA site about the three designations, only the Expert Traveler/black diamond category is consistent. For the "blue square" designation, the TSA sometimes names it "Frequent Traveler" (which sounds so much like Expert Traveler that it's practically the same thing), and other times names it "Casual Traveler," which sounds like the pilot program was in southern California, not Salt Lake City. The "green circle" designation is sometimes explained as "Families and Special Assistance," and other times as the "Family/Medical Liquid lane."

We may not be cool, but we'll get there first
Witness my own experience using the system for the first time on a flight from Philadelphia to Manchester, NH last week.

Arriving with plenty of time to spare for a mid-day flight of only 90 minutes duration, and with no meetings scheduled until late the next morning, I was feeling pretty casual that day.

We have heard about "registered traveler" initiatives and Secure Flight programs and privileged access security lines, but I had no direct experience with the official distinction between expert and casual travelers until this flight. So I did what a true "expert" traveler would do — I looked ahead to scan which line was the shortest and was moving the fastest. I quickly saw that the "Expert" line was eight people deep and hardly moving, while the "Casual" line had only a family of four, who actually looked pretty expert in the way they were blasting their stuff and themselves through the checkpoint. I was through in a jiffy.

Save for the green circle (which I never saw), it seemed to me that travelers were making choices based not on the specifics of their travel that day, but on a mix of emotional and status factors that just confused things — or, as I did, based on what looked like the fastest way through the system.

Slideshow: Cartoons: Danger in the air It certainly wasn't solely based on what kind of travelers they were. Instead, what happened is that the "Expert" lane seemed to become a magnet for folks with big egos, not merely small bags — and there were a lot of them. I wasn't alone in this assessment. The woman right behind me in the "casual" line had this to say to her traveling partner: "I guess I'm not cool enough to be in that line, but I'll get to the gate first!"

Part of the problem is that the signs come up on you very fast. I did not see the signs until I was almost already committed to a line. The fact that I did not see the green Family lane at all is the proof; it must have been well off to one side or the other, as not only did I not see it, but neither did the family of four I followed into the Casual lane.

Casually and frequently confused
If you spend any time reviewing the TSA's information and videos about the system, it is clear the agency is also not quite sure how this is supposed to work just yet.

For example, in one case the Expert Traveler lane is explained as "for frequent travelers who know the security rules and are prepared when they reach the checkpoint." In another, it is for people who "always arrive at the checkpoint with appropriate items removed and limited carry-on luggage," i.e., business travelers with a single carry-on item.

Okay, got it; now stay with me here. It is with the Casual Traveler lane that things get muddy.

In one instance, the TSA says this lane is for Casual Travelers, "passengers who travel less often and may not be as familiar with all of the security rules."

But in another instance, the TSA calls this a "Frequent Traveler" lane — "Expert" vs. "Frequent" traveler? Talk about bureaucratic tautology. Anyway, the TSA tells us this lane is for "the frequent flier who does not want to feel rushed by the impatience of others; this traveler has gone through the security checkpoint before, and is comfortable making their way along at a steady pace."

In other words, nearly expert travelers who don't want to have to stand in the same line with any bullies who chose Expert Traveler. (I'm not the only one who has seen choosing this lane backfire.)

Okay, so it is confusing. But does it work? According to the stats put out by the TSA above, it does — throughput on Expert lanes up by 21 - 40 percent, alarms in Family lanes down by 11 percent. Great news. And the Casual lanes?

You’ll be casual and like it
It is hard not to suspect that herein lies the rub. The vast majority of people filling airplanes crisscrossing the United States are not briefcase-carrying businesspeople, huge families (who can afford it?) or people carrying vats of liquid medicine, but are in fact "casual" travelers —people taking vacations, visiting family, going to weddings, etc.

Slideshow: Awful airlines Unless the TSA dedicates additional lanes to this great unwashed mass of travelers, we will continue to see improvements in security throughput for the few, and increases for the many. But when I went through the Philadelphia airport, there was one machine for Expert travelers, and one machine for Casual travelers.

I appreciate that the TSA is testing these programs to expedite the security process, but in this case it really does seem that it is establishing a velvet rope program that leaves the masses in a crush on the wrong side of the ropes. What is really needed is not a program that segregates passengers, but one that gets everyone through security faster, irrespective of how often they fly or how high an opinion they have of their own travel skills.

The single thing I have found to expedite the security process is an energetic and strong-throated TSA agent giving instructions before travelers get to the stacks of bins. Inevitably shoes come off, extra sweatshirts and belts are removed, keys and cell phones come out of pockets, and the process really cranks along. The best way to address a human problem still seems to be a human solution.

In the Budget Travel article above, the writer is "able to skip 10 people in the blue 'casual traveler' lane." Is this what we want — security lines for "the rest of us" that are 10 people or more longer than a line just on the other side of a rope? The TSA sells this as "going at your own pace," but it sounds like the plan for most of us is to go slower.


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