Travelers at Salt Lake City International Airport flew through security checkpoints twice as fast during Memorial Day weekend, when compared to last year thanks largely to a new program that offers separate lines for expert travelers and beginners.
"That started out as a pilot program here at Salt Lake. It turned out to be so successful that more than 20 other airports are now using it, with more rolling it out every week," said Dwayne Baird, public affairs manager for the Transportation Security Administration's northwest region.
The Deseret News used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain TSA data about how the new system which began here in February performed during the Memorial Day weekend, one of the first big travel weekends of the year and one of the system's first truly big tests.
The system allows fast-moving "expert" travelers to choose one line; those somewhat familiar with security point regulations to choose another and novices and families traveling with small children to choose a third.
At Terminal One (for all airlines except Delta the only Salt Lake terminal using the new system), average wait times decreased to 2.7 minutes this Memorial Day weekend, a 54 percent drop from the six-minute average wait a year earlier.
Also, the maximum wait time measured for any passenger over the holiday weekend this year was 14 minutes, hit by some passengers on Friday, May 23. The maximum average wait a year earlier was 25 minutes, almost twice as long. That wait time was hit by passengers on three different days last year over the long five-day, Thursday-to-Tuesday travel weekend.
The longest average wait time during peak periods of this year's holiday was 11 minutes, hit during peak times on Friday, May 23. The longest last year was 19.2 minutes, hit on the Monday of that holiday weekend.
Those improvements came while virtually identical numbers of passengers passed through the checkpoint in both years.
Why is the new system so much faster?
"What it does as much as anything is calm down travelers. They can choose to be with people who have the same needs and abilities," Baird said. So businessmen aren't tapping their feet and looking at watches, wishing families with line-clogging strollers would move faster, making those families more nervous and bumbling.
"The people in the black diamond (expert) line travel maybe once a week or twice a month. They know they need to take off their jackets and empty their pockets of metal and cell phones and often do it before they reach the identification check. When they reach the X-ray machines, they take off their shoes and take out their laptops (computers,) put them in gray bins, and they are ready to go," with little or no help from the TSA, Baird said.
"Casual travelers are those who travel maybe once or twice a year. They are sort of familiar with the rules," he said. "They are a little slower, but that's OK because they are in line with people who take about as much time as they do."
Novices need even more time, usually. "And that's OK, because they are in line with people of the same ability," he said, and they receive more coaching from TSA officials.
Baird said people who are more calm and less rushed tend to make fewer mistakes, such as forgetting to pull change out of a pocket, forcing them to repeat going through metal detectors, which also speeds the overall process.
Baird said the new system may also improve security. "It allows behavior detection officers to focus on people who are anxious because they might be trying to bring some prohibited material through, instead of looking at people who are just anxious because of a long line."
Baird said the TSA has received almost universally positive feedback about the new system. "The workers like it, especially the calming aspect of it. They like dealing with passengers who are less stressed, and who are proceeding in a more orderly fashion. ... Passengers don't dread going through the security system so much."
Baird said no plans have been made to switch to the new system in Terminal Two, which is used by Delta Air Lines. He said the TSA works with airlines about such preferences, and Delta lines there have been moving fast enough that no pressing need to change has arisen.
"We have a lot of staff there. The line looks long, but it moves along fast," he said.
In fact, the Delta terminal improved almost as much as Terminal One, although average waits were a bit longer in the Delta terminal, according to the data obtained by the Deseret News.The average wait time there this Memorial Day weekend was 3.2 minutes (compared to 2.7 minutes in Terminal One). That was down from an average wait of 7.5 minutes the previous year.