Instead of Waiting for More TSA Funding, Delta is Betting $1 Million on Improving Efficiency

ATL - Atlanta, Safety/Security

There’s been a lot of focus on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) being underfunded lately. After all, those long lines could be fixed with more screeners, right? Well, yes but there is also the issue of efficiency. Couldn’t TSA just do a better job with the resources it has? Yes, it could. And Delta is putting $1 million toward the effort by funding what it calls “innovation lanes.”

While I’d love to solve this issue by seeing this whole security theater thing go away in favor of something more sensible, that clearly won’t happen. The airlines know this and are instead focusing on ways they can help TSA to work more efficiently…quickly. Delta’s effort took only two months to come together. It went ahead and spent $1 million to get two innovation lanes installed in Atlanta. This is just a test at this point, which means it might take 1,000 years before it gets rolled out, just in time for it to be obsolete.

Delta TSA Atlanta Innovation Lanes

There are really three big things going on here that should help speed up the security process. You can see the first in the screenshot above, which I pulled from Delta’s gushing PR video about the new lanes.

Instead of having a line of people just waiting to put their bags in a bin, which they then have to push into the machine, there are now five separate stations where people can simultaneously put their bags in bins. That means each person can take his or her time to take a laptop out, ignore liquid rules, hide their guns… you know, all the usual stuff. Then when finished, the travelers push their bins forward to another belt which whisks them away into the machine. This means that the days of getting stuck behind some slow fool who can’t seem to figure out where to put his keys are gone. If one spot isn’t moving, that’s ok. There are four more.

In addition to this, the system has a built-in bin-moving system. When the bin is done being used on the other side of the scan, it’s automatically routed back to the five stations where the traveler can just pick it up and put things in. This should have been done long ago. If TSA is really having a shortage of people working, then a good solution is to stop wasting valuable labor on collecting bins and lugging them back to the beginning of the line.

There is more to love on the other side of the screening process as well. What happens now when there’s a bag that needs to be checked because someone accidentally put a 4 ounce bottle of shampoo in it? The conveyor stops moving and everyone has to wait until some officer comes up to take it, re-run it, and then ultimately save the day by confiscating the offending bottle.

In this system, that changes. There are now two belts available after going through the machine. One belt carries the cleared bags right to the waiting travelers. The other belt goes into the center and moves the offending bag out of the way. It’s how you get Herbie to stop gumming up the works. (If you have no idea who Herbie is, you’ve never read The Goal. If you like operations, then you’re missing out.)

None of this changes the screening process itself. There are no tweaks to the x-ray machine or the people examining it. It’s just a more efficient flow, and it should improve throughput 25 to 35 percent. Sure, they’ll take some time to measure it, but units like this are already handling screening in places like London already. They know these work. It’s just a matter of buying them. In fact, it’s shocking that TSA hasn’t gotten its act together on this before. (Or, you know, not shocking at all.)

In this case, Delta stepped up to the plate and spent a million bucks just to get it done in Atlanta. It’s still active on only two of the lanes there, so a fraction of the total. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how long before these can be rolled out further.

If anyone has gone through these lanes yet, let’s hear it in the comments. I’ve only heard positive feedback so far, but I’d like to hear more.

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44 comments on “Instead of Waiting for More TSA Funding, Delta is Betting $1 Million on Improving Efficiency

  1. Hate to show-off, but these have been in use at all security lines in London at both Gatwick and Stansted airports for about a year now. They really make a big difference

  2. Agree with David’s comments… it’s not really innovation. As he says such systems are already installed in many UK (and probably EU) airports and speed up the whole process.

  3. “Used” them in Luton beginning of May. Crowded airport at peak time, about half of the lines open, yet it took no more than 5 minutes to go through security… Very sensible way of organizing queuing by recognizing where the bottlenecks are, efficient and it takes a lot of the frustration of waiting for your turn to put your things in the bin out of the process.
    I haven’t seen them elsewhere in Europe yet !

  4. Cracks me up how the media are falling over themselves about this ‘innovation’ that has been all over UK security lanes for years. But, glad to see it come to the U.S.

  5. I dont get why this is a big deal or why it is simply a trial as opposed to a replacement?! They have this in lots of places already.

    1. Presumably someone at Delta decided they should do it as a trial first just to make sure it really makes a difference, before investing more to roll it out more broadly.

    2. Agencies like TSA are extraordinarily risk-averse.

      This ‘trial’ solves two key problems. First, Delta is paying for it, which solves a big budget problem (so much spending is guided by institutional momentum).

      Second, by calling it a ‘trial,’ that gives TSA the flexibility to let Delta take the lead in identifying the design and implementing it at no risk to the TSA. Sure, it would seem easy to just say they should adopt best practices from elsewhere (and they should!) but the reality is that these kinds of agencies aren’t wired to take that kind of risk.

      The endgame here is that Delta shows it can work; other airlines/airports want it, too – and it becomes the new standard.

  6. This system has been in place in many European countries for years. I am glad we (almost) caught up.

  7. I use them all the time at LHR, and they are great. A lot of folks getting off a AAL 77W gets through security pretty fast.

    The big part of it, is just what Cranky mentioned, it gets the non-conforming bags out of the way. It lets the slow pokes, well, poke slowly, without backing up everyone else. It removes the offending bags from the critical path and again increases through put.

    What I dont understand, is even though this is the deal in all the London airports, and several others in Europe (FRA and MUC for example), why not just study there, and implement all over? TSA, not the airlines, should be the ones footing this bill.

  8. Cranky: you mention London as an example where this system is already in operation, and it certainly is in Heathrow’s T5. It is, in my experience, an equally slow “theater of security” as the current TSA system is. Yes, there are 4 or so places per luggage belt to unpack and unbundle your carry-on into the bins, and yes, the bins are automatically transported from back to front.

    Where the wheels come off is that UK’s border control separates almost 1 in 2 carry-ons for further inspection, causing at any time a line of 7 or more bags waiting for inspection. If it isn’t your mention of a bottle of shampoo, than it is a grandmother’s pie which was too moist so that the machine thinks it’s C7, or an international multi-pronged travel plug that looks suspicious or a baggage handler somewhere along your travels smoked weed and touched your bag and the scent is picked up by the machine (true story).

    And just like in the US where you describe one TSA agent dealing with the delinquent bag, in T5 there is for that long line of waiting bags one screener who painstakingly (and infuriatingly) slow and disinterested deals with checking and re-screening the contents of your unmentionables. The whole process can take forever, and people have been known to miss connections as a result of a volume of travelers that is simply too much for the number of security lanes, and the number of security screeners on hand.

    Amsterdam is another place where this “Atlanta system” is now in place for perhaps a year, as is Manchester. I have not witnessed any improvement in speed, friendliness, efficiency or a more pleasant experience in any of those places. In fact, the Dutch border control in Amsterdam is executing short strikes at the moment because there are, say the unions and the workers, not enough screeners and the ones working have to stand and work too many hours to deal with the high volume of flyers.

    There are certainly strategies that can alleviate the congestion. More people to do the work, and more lanes for passengers are the second best option. That involves spending more money on better wages and more hardware raising the cost of it all, and the wonderful people that govern our country know that the voting public never approve of that. The best option is to do away with the theatrics all together. But that is unsellable as well. So we muddle through, waiting in line, being shouted at by people on or below minimum wage, who, just like you, would like it to be over already.

    1. I have encountered this in MAN–where, perhaps, I have seen the most sensitive security in the entire world. Nearly every trip my bag has been separated for reasons of–too much stuff, an HDMI cord, etc. But it’s still a more efficient system than the TSA, and I will say that the people who have searched my bags by hand in MAN have been very friendly.

    2. I just experienced this at LHR T5. They did some kind of secondary check on 2/3 to 3/4 of the bags. It was a relatively quiet time of day (no long lines to get to the belt), but I waited 15 minutes after going through the body scanner to be able to picked up my cleared bag. Not sure how long it takes at peak times.

  9. A similar set-up exists here in Amsterdam and it has definitely sped things up, but not monumentally. The body scanners do as well, in part I assume because you may usually leave your belt and shoes on.

    If a pat-down applies, here in the Netherlands, you are usually told, not asked, “controleren” (“inspection”) and it’s done before the Americans have typically finished asking me for permission and explained what they’re doing when I go through the same in the US. :)

    As for the two-belts on the conveyor – after being in a dozen European airports in the last few weeks, I guess I’ve taken for granted that this was just standard practice overall.

    Innovation to me seems like an American buzzword, and jokes aside about American exceptionalism, I don’t think most Americans buy into the terms “innovation” or “enhancement” either.

  10. Good that the US is catching up.. they use this system at the Airport in Edinburgh Scotland and have done so for a couple of years.. it seems to work pretty well!

  11. This system has been in use at London Heathrow for a number of years so it is hardly new or innovative.  It works well there.

  12. I’m really not clear on whether or not UK airports had this technology first. Perhaps we could get a couple dozen more comments to clarify that?

  13. Improvement is needed, but sadly since we have so many airports in this country that were never designed for a security process, it still will make it harder to improve the system everywhere due lack of workable space.

  14. This is common elsewhere in the world, though to give the TSA the tiniest bit of credit (or the airports’ credit?) the whole “separate conveyor for offending bags” idea already exists even at many US airports. This automates it a bit better, but overall it’s not so unique.

    The lack of automatic bin return systems in the US is outrageous though. I don’t know of any other country where bins don’t return automatically. Even in low labor cost places like Dubai they have some sort of system (often something very simple, like an angled channel with rollers that just lets the bins roll back to the outside). How hard is this?

  15. I actually got to use the lane in Atlanta this Monday, and it does move that part faster, but it just loads more of a backup onto the body scanner. The way things are set up right now, it wasn’t too bad since each body scanner feeds one “normal” lane and one “innovation” lane. Unless they get the body scanner running faster, the bottleneck will just move there.

  16. > “That means each person can take his or her time to take a laptop out, ignore liquid rules, hide their guns… you know, all the usual stuff.”

    “Hide their guns,” Brett? Is that really necessary? Given that studies show the TSA has something like a 70-95% failure rate at spotting guns, I’m not sure any hiding is necessary at all.

    As for the liquid rules, no regular traveler that I know bothers to follow them any more, at least not in terms of taking the liquids out of the carryon. Why bother, when a vast majority of the time the TSA either doesn’t notice the liquids or doesn’t care about them- and when it does, it’s a quick matter of pulling them out and letting your bag cut in the line to be run through the machine again. Anecdotally, it seems that the liquids rule is enforced much more vigorously at smaller airports than at larger ones and hubs.

    Cheap shots at the TSA aside, I agree that this is a step in the right direction, but I would also suggest (as you mentioned) that reducing the security theater (loosening or eliminating the liquids, belts, and shoes rules would be a great start) would be an even bigger help in improving passenger throughput, at a much lower cost.

    1. Quote: “Hide their guns, Brett? Is that really necessary?”

      It’s satire, dude!

      BTW…are you the same guy who always cranks on the Crankster when he refers to AA’s new “ugly flag tail” color scheme?

      1. oldiesfan6479 – I think you might have misread Kilroy’s comments. He was saying there’s no need to hide guns since TSA misses them anyway. He wasn’t jumping on me for saying “guns.” (At least, I don’t think.)

        But no, Kilroy is not the one who jumps on the ugly flag tail comment.

  17. Cranky, I wish the gov’t, the airlines, would fund you for a written expose of this security situation in our fair country. I can’t imagine anyone would be more knowledgeable, more interested in everything, and willing to offer, fairly and honestly, all manner of pros and cons of this and that!

    Perhaps there is such an expose out there already that you could recommend?

    A couple of other points. The out-sourcing of the TSA security function. I hear that SFO is out-sourced. Can anyone offer some observations of how that has improved the situation, like compared with LAX that uses only TSA? We always seem to see pictures of the long lines at O’Hare, Atlanta, Reagan-National, etc., never at SFO. I guess SFO doesn’t have long lines, or it just doesn’t fit the story we want to put out. Anyone?

    This country has so many airports, so many different sizes, with so many different types of people going through, onto so many different sizes of aircraft, some of which carry hundreds at one time, but some that often carry a single passenger to some EAS city. Yet,, every passenger, regardless is handled the same. When I take the EAS Piper Navajo, often as the only passenger, I sit 6-inches from the single pilot and could do some serious damage. We fly close to Mt. Weather, Camp David, over all manner of nuclear and hydroelectric power plants, and but a couple miles of the White House and the Capitol. (Maybe I should be handcuffed or fit for straitjacket for the whole trip?)

    When I return from my EAS city, 2 or 3 TSA officers have to work me over, and there may be but one commercial flight all day.

    And, then across the field, there is a 3-jet, on-demand, charter flight operator, going almost every day to Teterboro, Marco Island, Naples, Aspen, you name it. All sorts of Netjets come and go just about every day, too. These flights serve far more passengers than do/does the EAS service. (They probably charge more than the $29 one-way fare the EAS carrier does, I know!) But, does TSA have to security-serve all of those on-demand flights, too?

    And, we all want to know. Does someone from TSA check out Donald Trump and his people every time, every campaign stop before he gets back onto his 757? Even at Podunk Municipal Airport, that doesn’t have, never has had, scheduled airliner service?

      1. If President Trump doesn’t like the TSA & it’s ridiculous rules, he can just declare “your fired!” to all unnecessary employees.

    1. JayB – I can’t say I know enough about SFO vs other airports. I’m not convinced that other companies run any more efficiently. But when it comes to the private vs public debate, I’ve mostly sat this one out. I just don’t feel knowledgeable enough at this point.

  18. Is it the case that security apparatus (and personnel) is the responsibility of the individual airports in the UK, rather than a single government body, and because the airports are competing with each other they have made the investment in this sort of equipment to make their airport more attractive to passengers (and see in the same vein Gatwick’s special screening lines for those with very young children)? What’s stopping far-sighted US airports doing the same?

  19. What do you mean it isn’t innovation???!!! We are using actual operations research and queueing methods for the first time in 15+ years. We are learning from other countries. That’s innovation!

    Yes, those pesky Europeans may have been using it all these years, by doggone it, we are America and therefore have to do things slowly.. err.. differently.

    Will we have TSA personnel helping speed up queues by standing in front of the machine input belt talking to passengers and helping them load quickly instead of just standing there and yelling at people? No we are not THAT European yet.

  20. Can you imagine what our World would look like today if we never had TSA saving all of us from the bad guys?

    We should look at getting them to work the cruise ship ports, you know they have ships that hold 6000 people and their security is from a 3rd party security company using pre 911 simple search procedures, like not having to hold your hands above your head?

  21. So the one thing I’m curious about here is the five disgorging stations only appear like they’d hold one bin. For better or worse I’m a three bin guy. (One for my laptop, phone and keys; one for my bag; one for my shoes and coat.) Do I end up having to shove all of those in individually and potentially have my bins intermixed with others?

    Also, does this have any innovations as to the pickup stations? I know the bins are RFID tracked, so you think something fancy could route each person’s bins to the pickup stations, and have a spot to sit nearby to put your shoes back on. Also, it’d probably take 7 to 12 pickup stations to match five dropoff stations.

    1. Nick – I’d assume that it would mix in with other bins unless you held all 3 back and then loaded them up at the same time before someone else in front of you could load one.

    2. You can either push them on to the conveyor or hold them back. Generally everybody pushes theirs on all at once, so it isn’t too much of an issue. There’s also *just* enough room to manoeuvre two trays if you’re careful.

      1. Thank you Lewis for that detail.

        As nice and shiny as DL’s promo video was, it didn’t quite provide as much detail from a passenger perspective as I wanted.. I went searching for another video or an additional description, but I didn’t find one.

  22. So, TSA has spent billions upon billions of dollars on added staffing, new uniforms, full body scanners, BDO’s, secure flight, etc. over the past 5-10 years yet they didn’t allocate any money to R&D (or copying from Europe in this case) for concepts like this that actually make them more efficient, increase throughput and ease checkpoint congestion? Embarrassing.

  23. By copying something already being done in Europe, we are taking another small step in making America Great Again.

  24. The real question is why a private airline is having to copy concepts and pay for a system that exists elsewhere in the world and why the TSA Is not benchmarking best practices for the job it is supposed to do.
    With privatization of security being increasingly pushed because the TSA Is doing such a bad job, Delta’s need to create a system which TSA should have considered years ago further highlights that for many, many reasons, the TSA is a bloated inefficient organization that needs to be forced to perform far better than it is on many levels or be dissolved as an organization that at minimum gives up its first line passenger contact responsibilities.

  25. I just got back from a trip to Puerto Rico. The TSA San Juan (or in general) don’t know there butt from their elbow. I have pre-check, and the pre-check line kept switching back and forth from pre-check to non-pre-check, in a vague, half-shouted announcement while people waited in line grumbling and confused. Liquids in, liquids out, laptops in, laptops out, shoes on, shoes off. It felt like a game of simon says, and everyone was losing. Nobody knew what the F was going on. Why pre-check? More like pre-waking nightmare.

    Why would this happen?

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