The productivity benefit of tiny wireless in TSA queues

An article in the Wall Street Journal (August 16, 2016) titled “How Tiny Wireless Tech Makes Workers More Productive” describes use of wireless tracking in a test in Atlanta to speed up security screening by Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Passengers place their articles in a bin with a transponder, then go to a separate line to be screened. After completing screening, they pick up their items from a bin identified using the transponder. The article claims that separating the passenger from their bin reduces queue bottlenecks and decreases the queue length by 30%. Do these results suggest a mechanism by which real time tracking can increase productivity by decreasing queue bottlenecks ? Does the separation of customers from their bags create other service issues, such as the need to have customers monitor baggage examination ? Might there be other service architectures that deliver the same productivity without the technology?

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22 Responses to The productivity benefit of tiny wireless in TSA queues

  1. Vijay Raisinghani says:

    This is a great system, however I am not sure technology speeds up particularly. I can see technology help security aspects of this transaction but speed improvement being entirely attributed to the technology might be questionable. Fundamentally there are 2 separate set of resources used to process the baggage screening (the belt on which people put the artifacts like carry on bags etc.) and people screening, (x-ray where people get scanned). So separating these lines is a good thing and can lead to increased productivity. Dependent on which is faster, i.e., belt screening or human screening, we would need resource like staging area to keep the scanned articles ready or the waiting area for people to wait for the items. The most likely scenario is that people are patted down for random checks more often items are scanned for longer and also human errors are more occasional than the baggage ones, i.e., carrying things on them which lead to false negatives, than baggage screening. In any case, keeping these 2 separate helps in monitoring the critical resource usage, i.e., the scanner, and the overall throughput of the passengers, i.e., number of passengers (including the baggage) going through the scan lines and coming out of the system. Additional waiting area or staging area for articles would need to be made available to accommodate for slowness in either of the process queues. As a general feedback, in India, typically this is the case for all airports – you have one scanner for baggage and multiple people scanners/pat down stations. They use the number tag system (simple plastic number plates) and things flow pretty quick, though I don’t have any metric of improvement compared to their earlier or single station system.

  2. Sarah Rosnick says:

    Um…I don’t think the issue and keeping people with their bags is an issue of efficiency and productivity. It has to do with keeping people near their bags in case there was a lethal item enclosed with them and the ability to ensure that if a bag is covered with dangerous residue – the person carrying it is held as well. When I used to shoot competitively, I was held at several airport security stations because I tested positive for explosive residue (thanks West Point.) At another point, my uniforms weren’t allowed through because a decorative sash x-rayed and appeared to be a knife to the individuals monitoring the station. It was another situation where the security component of the procedure was the paramount issue.
    If you can figure out a way to separate the issue of security from being efficient and having faster throughput, I think you’d solve the TSA’s entire problem 🙂 The technological advances that gave them a chance to x-ray quickly or process explosive residue quickly gave them additional and expedient visibility into what could have been a devastating situation for people (if I didn’t have good intentions, for example.)

  3. bairdjb says:

    I do not think that it can be extrapolated that the real-time tracking has increased productivity. I agree with Sarah that the purpose of keeping people with their belonging as long as possible is to ensure a high level of security. I would add that it is probably also to reduce the liability of something happening to the belongings while under the care, custody, and control of TSA.
    Without seeing the system in action. I would tend to think that the queue simply sifted from pre to post-screening of the traveler. There would still have to be a bottleneck where travelers are putting articles of clothing back on, getting a pat down or picking up the bag. I guess, more specifically, I am agreeing with Vijay to the extent that you can only go as fast as the slowest of the two processes. Yes, you might have reduced the bottleneck in the middle but you have not increased the efficiency of the entire process from start to finish.

  4. Freddy Horn says:

    I agree with Sarah. Luggage screening is part of an important security procedure. Having passengers close to their bags adds to the service quality level, i.e. making sure noboby brings explosive or dangerous items on a plane. The Atlanta system would also only help to accelerate the process at airports where baggage screening really is the bottleneck. I definitely know airports where this is the case. However, I also remember many examples when I was waiting to walk through security, with my luggage already screened and waiting for me on the other side. I often find that the “female agents can only pad down women and male agents can only pad down men” rule causes most of the waiting time, especially when a larger group of women or men arrive at security and hence add a lot of variability to the the process.

  5. Julia Eldridge says:

    I understand what they are trying to get at with this system as after the bottleneck of being screened for the first time with your ticket and ID, you are not at all prepared to go through the next bottle neck of placing items in the x-ray machine and getting yourself through the scanners and potential pat downs. We’ve all been there, when you are at a new security system, maybe in a new country and you don’t quite know the rules there: do I take off my shoes? Do I take out my computer? What about other electronics? Do my liquids need to be in their own bag and do those need to be taken out? etc. Beyond trying to figure out the rules there you now have to do all the shuffling of taking off a shoe as you push the bin forward and grab another bin for your computer as you see the conveyer belt in front of you almost empty and people piling up behind you, then you are ready to push your bags through, but you can still see the strap of the purse in front of you that hasn’t completely gone into the machine so you can’t quite leave your bag to stand in line to go through the scanner. Whew! No wonder Atlanta is trying a system to separate these two bottle necks, however I think Sarah’s points regarding security are a huge draw back to this system.

    One of the more efficient systems I have seen, for at least the baggage part (considering the full time in the system was at least an hour) was in Amsterdam, where there were many designated spots around where you put your bags that had individual trays that you pulled out, ready to go to put in all of your stuff at that spot. This helped lessen the the single server issue you have when you have to wait behind the person that didn’t follow directions and is now trying to take out his computer as you just have to wait behind him. Now there are essentially 5 servers for that one area, thanks Van Der Lande 😀

  6. Kim Coldiron says:

    I have to agree with Sarah and the others regarding the security issue of separating passengers and bags. Besides, how many times have you been asked if your bag was out of your sight for any length of time? This poses a whole new level of risk for harmful items to be carried into the airport or for someone to slip something into a different bag.
    Beau’s point hits home for me. I had a piece of jewelry stolen from a bin in the airport once while going through security. I travel extensively so this has made me a more observant when I am going through the checkpoints. I would personally be very uncomfortable with being completely separated from my “personal belongings”. When you think of the importance of our cell phones today, I am not sure how comfortable people would be with having their cell phone out of sight for very long.
    Additionally, Vijay & Freddy are spot on. In my experience, most of the delays in security queues are due to individual screening or pat downs. I have had to wait for a female assist on multiple occasions just because all the checkpoint officers happened to be male. This is a simple matter of better resource scheduling.

  7. Michael Minor says:

    There is no doubt that real-time tracking has saved many man-hours and increased efficiency as expressed in the article about Macy’s, Delta and the airport in Atlanta. Roberti (2016) said, “Low-cost wireless technologies are only beginning to break down the wall between the physical and digital worlds” (Roberti, 2016). I find his comment to be true especially since GPS is part of my everyday activities from getting directions to finding a misplaced device. My dog even has a device in his ear just in case he runs away; I couldn’t imagine walking through the neighborhood trying to find him. With all the great uses of technology, sometimes the employment can be the issue, as in the case of the Atlanta pilot program. Yes, the technology makes the line move faster, but it removes some of the safety from the process. I will echo my colleagues in saying that separating customers from their bags isn’t in the best interest of traveler. TSA already has a good layout, but in a lot of cases, I see lazy employees reluctant to open that next lane, later reacting to a long line versus preventing it.

  8. Jordan McCroskey says:

    It’s certainly an interesting concept. I agree with the majority of the responses that separating passengers from their bags would cause agitation for many passengers. Efforts to assure passengers of the security of this method would be laborious and expensive.

    There are many benefits of the decreased cost in real-time tracking devices. Mike’s example of pet tracking is very real to any of us that have lost a pet. This technology has had huge benefits for the logistics industry. We implemented tracking on our delivery trucks at my last company so that customers could track their delivery in real-time and see when they would arrive at their house. We were able to narrow 2 hours windows to minutes using this technology.

    Many interesting uses – but I’m not sure improving TSA security is the first place to utilize it.

  9. Jennifer Greminger says:

    Regardless of the technology introduced (tracking/transponder device), it seems separating individuals from their bags creates additional points of failure in the process: matching bags with the person when there are content questions, creation of separate lines and anxiety behaviors of people being separated from their personal effects, matching people and bags back up, etc. Are they solving the ‘right’ problem….if the same process of observing bag contents by a human at a monitor doesn’t change – there is still a bottleneck. The review of bag contents is still only as good as the one human looking at the one screen. Is it more efficient to have one line, people and bags stay together, but there are multiple screeners looking at multiple monitors in a one ‘conveyor’ line? You layer the views of the bag contents, and get multiple check points.

  10. Ken Janicke says:

    These results certainly do suggest an increase in productivity, but I’d say the real-time tracking is just the technology that affords the real operations solution – setup time removal. Having the passengers process their own belongings at their own speed, and then proceeding thru security checks after which they are reunited with their cleared items, removes a process setup time at one location and allows the travelers to move more in “escalator” fashion rather than “elevator” fashion.

    It’s difficult to imagine that new issues wouldn’t emerge with this new process, namely concern over valuables being lost or stolen, damage, and possible new bottlenecks at collection stations when passengers line up to retrieve their items.

    Another concern with separating passengers from their belongings has to do with security. The ability to pair the individual with possibly dangerous or illegal materials would need to be addressed.

    It seems a lower cost and less drastic solution change might be to introduce the grocery store line types of solutions. Reducing arrival variability with airline scheduling, and introduce a serpentine line system where the next person to be processed can be directed to the next lowest utilized checker. Coupled with staffing based on demand projections should increase the TSA passenger processing rate.

  11. Paul Aoun says:

    Since the bottlenecks are at screening, and they are mostly due to the time people take to remove theirs shoes, belts, laptops and so on, introducing a prior step will certainly improve the flow rate, and reduce the inventory at the bottlenecks. Also, it will let passengers requiring less processing time (no luggage, no belts, etc) move faster through the screening and thus increasing the flow rate even further.

    Yes, there are some issues this system could introduce:
    • Security, due to not being in close proximity to one’s belongings. Shrinkage (theft) could increase, and also risk to the TSA agents since the owners are not with their luggage
    • Based on Toyota’s TPS, two issues could arise
    o Motion: moving items around could introduce delays, including in finding’s ones belongings
    o Rework: if a travelers forgets something and don’t realize it until they’re at the screening point, they will have to go back to step 1
    Global Entry and Pre, pre-screening services offered by US Customs and TSA, respectively, are great. They run background checks, interview the travelers, and then less processing (screening) is needed at the bottlenecks.

  12. Sara Moscato Howe says:

    As someone who frequently travels and bought into TSA Pre-Check when it first began, I am all for ways to speed up the security line. Pre-check was once much faster before it became something everyone had. I can see how separation of bags from the individual can cause problems such as theft, yet, if the TSA is going to be implementing this, there should be a strong management oversight of the bag check. Of course that is not at all foolproof, but it should be a clear component of this type of program. I also think if this works the way it should, the body screening will take less time and thus you will be able to meet your bag on the other end with less opportunity for loss. I would definitely give it a try if offered! Air travel has become so painful, if the security line can be reduced, we would decrease airport anxiety overall.

  13. Mike Carter says:

    I’m not sure this would improve efficiency at all. If you they want to truly improve efficiency then everyone should be required to buy the TSA Pre-Check card and check bags. This would truly prove out this theory. I think TSA should conduct a case study by giving customers a voucher to participate in this analysis. They would understand if this has an impact or not. As long as people are allowed to bring carry-on luggage, people will not be willing to separate from it. Some people bring personal medication on board and as well as other personal items. I think there would be a risk for high theft as well. I have noticed the line efficiency is determined by the TSA Agents themselves. Some of them talk a lot and while this is very pleasant it also slows down the line. There tends to always be confusion on what items must be removed and what items do not. When I last traveled, we were told to remove books from all backpacks which was a surprise to everyone in the line.

  14. srinivas tadepalli says:

    Though this article is dated (more than 1.5 yrs), I agree with some of the points said above. As an ardent fan of technology, RFID is a great technology and its reliability has improved over the years. when i looked up online about the company who manufactures this technology (, they seem to be quite successful in installing this technology in major airports in UK and now moving to US as well (with a Pilot in Atlanta airport as mentioned in the blog post in 2016) but looks like they have installed these in quite a few airports in North America. So, i am reasonably sure, the TSA is seeing benefit from this technology as they seem to be in the replication phase when it comes to reducing bottle necks in the security lines. As with any other technology, nothing is fool proof and there will be initial anxiety for the passengers and will eventually get used to it i suppose.

  15. Peter Rigakos says:

    I would agree with Paul A, I travel by plane at least twice a month and while I wait to be screened for me a clear indicator is the removal of shoes, belts, laptops…etc. is the slow down. Some concerns I have are, airports do loose luggage and one of the reason why many prefer to take carry on when the can to prevent this. I am sure this system I different as there will be less handling and it will most likely not leave the building, however, if there is a mix up, it could cause issues where people are losing valuables such as wallets, phones, documents…etc. I feel the technology that should be used I pre screening and devices that can search people without having to remove belts, shoes, jackets…etc.

  16. D. Zekveld says:

    Any opportunity to improve efficiency in security lines should be considered, in my opinion. Security at Airport lines is truly one of the least enjoyable experiences in life, let alone in travel.

    I’m all for an improvement opportunity and 30% reduction in wait time sounds impressive. I’m not as worried about the direct security, as I do believe someone with ill-intentions will find away around not having to be right beside the luggage (think Brussels, unfortunately this was the case in that attack).

    I’ve often though about how the process can be improved while standing in line. Incentivize the operators? Privatize the security and reimburse for customer satisfaction? Just make the experience better – some entertainment while in line?

  17. Camilo Rodriguez says:

    Definitely agree with Freddy, I think the problem is that the system is taking care of things separately, and that there are bottlenecks in the system. It has definitely been the case for me that I see my luggage processed before I am. Possibly a better approach would be to do things simultaneously. Finally, I think this requieres a fair amount of goal programming in the sense that we are pursuing two goals which are in opposition to each other. Security Rigor and efficiency

  18. Wendy Mehringer says:

    Improving the processing time at the screening conveyor is worthwhile so long as the overall processing time also improves. If the solution requires an additional step prior to or after the current TSA screening queue, the total processing time isn’t likely to improve and may even increase. In any other industry, the consumer wouldn’t stand for such poor service (time delay). Some of that consumer impact is less relevant here because it is the government and mandated. Also of note, the bottleneck is caused largely by the “undressing” and “unbagging” of personal items, less by the carry-on luggage. Perhaps a better solution to consider would be differentiation of screening lines a la the grocery store’s “10 Items or Less” line. If travelers with fewer or less complicated bags could flow into their own line, they’d process quicker and fewer would have to clog up the traditional TSA line.

  19. Rolando Saca says:

    I would definitely revisit the process. While separating the bins with their owners might be more efficient than what we have right now, I believe a redesign of the process might reduce the bottleneck and improve the flow rate. If beforehand, while waiting in line, people can put their stuff in bins and have the bin next to them, when their turn is due, they’ll just walk through and avoid any interruptions to the process. I believe this will help improve the flow rate and processing times on the screenings.

  20. Anna Dietrich says:

    Following up to Sri’s analysis, there appears to be merit in this technology and it’s use in decreasing the bottlenecks in airports. My first reaction to this article was likely a conditioned response growing up post 9/11 that travelers should never be separated from their belongings in airports. Outside of the obvious security concerns, and in addition to the technology enhancements, there could be alternative solutions to help smooth the flow of the screening process.
    – Distinguish “types” of passengers, such as families, versus those traveling alone, or with limited luggage. I like Wendy’s comment of “10 items or less”
    – Time the “release” of passengers in that passengers can only enter the security area based on flight departure times.
    – Identify a way to eliminate the bins. The fact that one passenger requires multiple bins certainly creates a delay in getting items onto the belt, and then retrieving after screening.

  21. Jennie Dekker says:

    I do not believe that the tracking had any impact on the increased productivity of the system – it merely provided comfort during the separation from one’s belongings. By separating an individual from their belongings it allows the for less intervention and allows the system to process as designed. Another redesign that would allow this to occur without the use of costly technology would be to simply place a glass wall between the two stations allowing the individual to track their bags without the ability to intervene in the system.

  22. Matt Slane says:

    Seperating the passenger from their contents may be a source of anxiety based on the fear of theft and lost items. Recently the Indianapolis airport has been testing a processing approach that is based on only handing over your license for scanning instead of asking for your boarding pass and id. This has increased throughput since people aren’t always searching or reactivating their phones to pull up the boarding pass. This seems to be a better way to improve screen time than seperating passengers from their possessions.

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