Originally published by Robert Beisert at fortcollinsprogram.robert-beisert.com

I Hate Airports

When you read the title, most of you probably thought I hate the lines, or the cost of the food, or the not infrequent changes in flight time or gate number, but those are incidental to me. No, I am an engineer; I hate the inefficiency.

First, we have the check-in system. I most often fly Southwest, because it takes me all the places I want to go for half the price of Delta or United. When I do, though, I have to confirm my flight within twenty-four hours of takeoff. That often leaves me with either the choice to wait like a desperate eBay bidder to snipe the first seating position I can get or confirm an hour later for a spot near the end of the line. That’s an inefficient use of my time, and I can’t bring myself to spend ten dollars to relieve myself of the responsibility. Inefficient.

Then the moment we first hit any major airport, we’re confronted with a situation in which all but one lane is wrong. Quite frequently, the majority of traffic is funnelled into one or two lanes from four or five. On busy holidays, that’s a zero-throughput situation. So inefficient.

If you’re smart, you either printed out your boarding pass or have it on your phone, or you get to stand in the same line to check your bags as the big families, the non-native English speakers, the old ladies who have to dig for their information, and the people checking non-standard baggage (guns, skis, etc.). Inefficient, but if you did it the other way you can often use the much more efficient curbside check-in service.

Now you get to go through the TSA line. Setting aside the recently-raised concerns about whether the TSA can actually screen for bombs or whether the new scanners are actually more secure than metal detectors, there are guards at at least four separate stations. Near the line entrances, they check whether you have your boarding pass and ID and/or point you toward the correct queue for your security status. Then there’s a set of guards whose job is to check your ID and boarding pass to ensure they match up. Then there are guards who run the baggage scanners, guards who run the body scanners, guards who check anyone who’s been flagged, and guards who run baskets from the end of the scanner to the front. It’s security, so I expect inefficiency, but when things are running slower than necessary it irritates me.

Then there are inefficiencies in boarding. Southwest lets you sit wherever you choose, so most people stack up near the front of the plane waiting for a previous passenger to store his or her luggage. There’s always at least one bag too large to fit in overhead, which means they struggle for a few minutes before an attendant obscures traffic to take it to free checking. People fill the plane from the aisle and middle seats for some reason, meaning there’s another delay when you go to fill in one of the window seats. Inefficient as it gets, and we repeat the feat in reverse when it’s time to debark the plane.

Finally, all the plane passengers squash in around the baggage carousels with the passengers of a half-dozen other flights to grab their bags. There’s nothing but jostling, body odor, and the back of other people’s heads to enjoy while you desperately try to figure out which of the fifty identical black bags is yours. Inefficent.

Simple Improvement Ideas

Of course, it’s one thing to complain and another to fix. In order, here are the things I would improve to increase efficiency.

  1. Establish early confirmation. If you’re willing to put up with a later place in the line anyway, you can check in up to 72 hours early. Your placement in the queue will be determined by random number generator, with the rules stating that parties will be seated in sequential order and children will always be seated early with their parents.
  2. Optimize traffic. It’s too complicated and specific to propose a general solution, but you get better throughput when you have no bottlenecks.
  3. Never print boarding passes at the baggage counter. You have to either use the kiosk or get your ticket through your home computer or phone.
  4. Pre-weight baggage at an automated counter. Have one employee station each to ensure that passengers don’t fudge their results, but print out the flight tags for all approved bags and let individuals tag their own baggage. Then all the counter employees have to do is handle special cases.
  5. Expedite the TSA. Don’t hold the line when people don’t have their passes and ID’s out – make them step out of line and reenter when they have it ready for scanning. Stop mandating people take their laptops and liquids out of their bags, or design luggage that makes it easier for security to scan them in baggage if that’s better for security. Stop using the microwave scanners when the data is produced to demonstrate the inefficiency and lack of improved security it provides.
  6. Fill planes from the windows inward, and from the back forward. This ensures that the most passengers are putting their bags away and sitting down at any given time.
    Exfil the planes in the same way. For families, fill them either in the middle or at the back of the plane by default.
  7. Only load one plane’s baggage on the carousel at a time, and make it clear WHICH plane is being shown on the carousel.

Ineffiencies bug me, because I know we can do better.