Airport Security Workflow Overhaul Fail

The Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL) airport recently emplaced a rejiggered passenger-and-luggage screening system.  Superficially the individual changes appear clever, but in the aggregate they create a more chaotic and stressful experience for travelers, seemingly without accomplishing the intended benefits.

Having cleared the snaking line and ID validation, travelers will find that they can approach the conveyor belt at one of several parallel stations, each of which offers a private staging area where you can prep your items.  Another conveyor belt, meanwhile, feeds empty trays below the upper one for you to retrieve.  The rest of the process will appear familiar.  Sort of.  At least in theory.

These changes attempt to address what can be two of the more vexing and delay-inducing problems, firstly the exhaustion of available bins, and secondly the inability of a traveler to effectively prep their items for the belt before occupying the belt in a way that prevents its use by other passengers.

The first issue becomes evident as soon as you attempt to retrieve a tray.  The belt that serves this function starts up unpredictably and may do so when you are in the midst of retrieving a tray, as happened to me, causing the tray to pitch and roll substantially and thereby get wedged.  I could also imagine, though it did not happen to me, someone experiencing a mild to moderate hand pinching as a consequence.

The second issue manifests as you attempt to prep your items.  The prep station only accommodates a single tray at a time.  Meanwhile, you compete with several other passengers to push items from the prep station onto the shared belt in an uncoordinated fashion.  If you have more than one tray’s worth of stuff, your items will inevitably get separated.  If the shared belt engages in the middle of your transferring an item to it, your item may get wedged.  I ended up with three trays (roller-board, bag/shoes/belt/jacket, two side-by-side laptops) that ended up uncomfortably far apart.  It was quite unsettling.

The third issue manifests not as the result of a change but rather the lack thereof.  I think the new arrangement does actually move passengers along the earlier stages of processing more efficiently.  Unfortunately, there were no changes apparent in the baggage collection phase of the architecture, resulting in even more chaos.   TSA personnel were admonishing travelers not to re-dress/re-pack at the belt.  People ended up awkwardly putting their luggage onto the floor in crowded conditions.  I believe I witnessed an especially good illustration of the problems as I arrived in a burst of travelers at the checkpoint that seemed to have followed a lull.

While the arrangement certainly makes some strides on optimizing for throughput, it does so in a way that leaves you feeling even more like harried cattle than the previous arrangement did, and worse still the optimizations appear to have been applied only locally in a way that did not calibrate the system to avoid bottlenecks.

Perhaps the most unforgivable failure in all of this was the seeming lack of instrumentation data or readily apparent customer feedback mechanisms.  I hope that this is being done as a mere pilot project at only a single of the airport’s several checkpoints.  But if it is then the validation of the pilot project’s effectiveness would not seem to be playing out in a meaningful manner.  I chatted up a couple of my fellow travelers at the end of the process to make sure the exasperation I experienced was not unique to me.  It wasn’t.  Sadly these two conversations appeared to be the closest thing to a survey being conducted on the experience.

When I mentioned to another traveler the forlorn hope that this was just a pilot project and that the airport would learn what a disaster it was before rolling it out to all of the checkpoints, he remarked “It’s the government, so I doubt it.”. I’m afraid that that my intuition says that he is right.  This could be done a whole lot better but seemingly the right people are not designing the system or overseeing its implementation.

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