Airline passenger security lines got a lot of attention Wednesday at the world’s busiest airport.
But not for the reasons you might think.
Nope, no chaos, no frustration, no sweaty air travelers waiting for hours to get past checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Instead, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration showed off its new experimental passenger screening lines — what the agency said could be the first chapter of a book titled, “The Future of the TSA.”
The experimental lines may be small.
But they’re a big deal, because the current TSA systems screen 1.8 million fliers every day.
Travelers who went through the experimental lines on Wednesday in Atlanta included a business traveler from Florida and a family from Minneapolis, who spoke with CNN.
They each gave the experimental system a thumbs up, saying it seemed more efficient.
Irate passengers get attention
The TSA is on notice.
Passenger anger over long lines and unbearable waits has gotten attention.
One top TSA security official has already been reassigned, and Peter Neffenger, the agency’s chief administrator, answered tough questions at a congressional hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
As passenger Maeghan Lucks said in Atlanta on Wednesday, “They just don’t care. I just don’t think that they care.”
In a perhaps bold move, the TSA has opened its experimental lines just days before Memorial Day — one of the busiest travel holidays of the year in the United States.
Atlanta’s airport is projected to handle a record 90,000 passengers this holiday weekend (including Thursday), the TSA said.
Here’s what you need to know about the experimental screening lines:
They seem faster and more convenient
All baggage is placed inside bins that are tracked by a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag.
These bins automatically move along conveyor rollers.
The bins are moved out of the way if the bags inside them need to be further inspected by a TSA officer.
This way the line can continue moving.
“I was able to go around a few people who were waiting for their bins to go through,” said businessman Ashish Thomas. “I thought it was great. It keeps thing moving.”
Bins automatically recirculate to the front of the lanes after passengers collect their bags.
A special area apart from but near the front of the line is designated for passengers to take off shoes, belts and other articles of clothing.
This allows others to keep moving through the line.
TSA spokesman Mark Howell said the agency is looking for a 25-35% improvement on efficiency per lane in a best case scenario.
They probably don’t add security
Former TSA assistant administrator Chad Wolf is familiar with the new system.
He said the TSA has been considering these ideas for years.
In fact, similar systems are already in use at airports in London and Amsterdam.
They don’t necessarily provide any additional security for screening passengers, he said.
“I would recommend them looking at other technologies for the checkpoint that not only speed up time but that also increase security,” Wolf said.
He suggested the TSA use the same technology that it uses for checked baggage for screening carry-on bags.
“It’s not simple and it’s not cheap but that’s the solution,” he said.
“It allows travelers to leave laptops in their bag, leave liquids in their bag, which speeds up the through-put,” Wolf said.
“It increases security because you have computer algorithms looking for those prohibited items like liquid explosives and you remove that human element — like the screeners staring at that screen, stopping that conveyor belt.”
An airline is helping to pay for them
Delta Air Lines has paid $1 million to research, develop and build the lanes in Atlanta.
The carrier said that comes out to less than $200,000 per lane.
Also, Delta is providing staff at no-cost to help the TSA with non-screening duties.
At other airports, American Airlines said it has set aside $4 million to hire contract workers for non-screening TSA tasks, in addition to $17 million American says it already shells out each year on resources to help shorten lines.
TSA experts are testing the new lanes side-by-side against traditional TSA lanes.
Don’t expect to see them anytime soon
Data from the new lanes will be gathered and analyzed.
If successful, the TSA says the new lanes could be adjusted and copied at other airports.
If that happens, it could lead to faster, more efficient security lanes in as soon as five years, said one TSA official.
“Five years is way too long to scale this,” said Gil West, Delta Air LInes’ chief operating officer. “We will help enable the acceleration of the deployment.”
In the meantime, fliers can keep an eye on TSA’s phone app called My TSA, beginning in mid-June.
It’s expected to start posting more accurate wait times at TSA checkpoints.
As always, airlines recommend arriving at airports two hours before scheduled departure times for domestic flights and three hours before international flights.