Give us appointments at airport security

I've written about a few plans to get rid of the headache (and travel killer) that airport security has become. One of the great curses is that because you can't predict how long security might take, most people end up arriving way, way ahead of their flight in case the line is long, but often they clear it in just a few minutes. (Ditto the immigration/customs line at Canadian airports going to the USA.)

So here's another idea -- appointments for going through airport security. When you use web check-in (which many airlines now support) or even at the gate, you would be allocated an appointment in the latest available slot some period (say 20 minutes) before boarding ends for your flight. Appointments would be spaced at slightly more than the average time to clear a passenger through security.

This would work because there would be two lines at the security gate. One for people with appointments, one for those without (or who missed their appointment.) You could only enter the appointment waiting zone in the 10 minutes prior to your appointment, and presuming 30 seconds per party, that would mean it would hold about 20 people. An agent would check your bar-coded appointment slot in letting you in.

When your time comes (or at any free time) you would be taken through at the head of the security line. If somebody needs extra security (random search, suspect item) that of course delays the station they are going through, but the other stations are free to take the person with the next appointment. Only if all stations got bogged down with problem cases would people in the appointment line not go through at close to their exact appointment time.In other words, this works best if there are at least 3 or more screening stations, but this is common at major air terminals. And it could break down in the case of a major airport lockdown requiring extra screening on all passengers -- if the lockdown took place between the time you got your appointment and the time of your appointment. Appointments issued after a slowdown starts would be spaced to the new flow of passengers. In general, appointment pacing would be based on models of expected passenger flow at the given time of the day.

(Passengers could also -- though they might be nuts to do so -- report that they
expect to take slightly longer, because like me they travel with things like electronic equipment with lots of wires, medical equipment, extra baggage or other special needs. I say they might be nuts as this might get you selected for extra screening all the time.)

Of course, if this system works really well, then everybody will be getting an appointment, in fact it will come with your boarding pass. Trouble is, that takes away the non-appointment line which is normally what provides the slack when passengers with appointments take longer in security. If it becomes this popular airlines would have to make rules offering appointments only to around half the passengers (frequent flyers, full-fare, first-class etc.) and no appointment for people on a discounted coach fare with no frequent flyer card. In effect, some airlines, by offering express lines for first class passengers, are trying to do something like this. Discount passengers need not be locked out entirely, the first set of them to ask for an appointment could still get one, they just can't all be given one.

But a specific appointment with no line at all is better than an express line.

Now, while this system would always give you your appointment later than you would dare arrive for the random line length we have today, people will push things and show up late. They could be forced into the no-appointment line, or put in a special "If the appointment queue gets empty" line, or of course be let through anyway if they are a premium passenger. Generally if appointments are missed by only a few minutes, leniency would make sense, and there would be slop in the system to account for just that.

Now this concept need not just apply to security. It could apply to baggage check as well. (If you're not checking baggage, the better airlines no longer make you wait in line at all, they give you web check-in or self-service check-in.)

When planes are delayed, passengers would need a way to signal (by calling a magic number that knows the caller-id of their phones) that they know the flight is delayed and want to move their appointment. Of course, if they didn't know about the delay, they would arrive for their old appointment in any event and then wait in the terminal just like before.

This doesn't make security any faster, it just makes it predictable, and that's of great value. Especially if you also have predictable transport to the airport, like trains. If you think about it, today the important time we want to know is not when they board our flight. The important time is when we will go through security, since the trip from there to the gate has a fixed time.

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