Friday, August 11, 2006

Problem with Airport Security #1 (in a planned series)

One major problem with airport security today is the lack of incentives on the part of the airport to do a good job. While I definitely applaud the job the British intelligence agents have done in foiling the latest terrorist plot and think the threat of terrorism is real, I’m left wondering exactly how much safer I am because of the rude TSA agent at JFK. Exactly what would happen if a pair of shoes just happened to enter the x-ray machine in one of the grey trays? I could go on and on about the rejects from the Post Office who get recruited to be TSA screeners, but this post is actually about queuing theory and incentives.

I suffered through a hour-long check-in process at JFK this morning which was shorter than I was expecting and MUCH shorter than the ludites who didn’t use one of the self-serve kiosks. The long wait was based on two major factors: more checked baggage than usual and slightly more extensive personal screening. Both of these factors could easily have been anticipated by the airport security staff and airlines. In fact, they WERE anticipated as evidenced by the warning for passengers to arrive at the airport even earlier than normally recommended. Now here’s where I get confused. This is a very simple operations problem. You have the same number of expected customers (perhaps slightly fewer as some are spooked and change their travel plans) and longer service times (see above). There really is only one solution to this problem: BRING IN MORE OPERATORS (in this case, service agents)! Simply asking people to come in earlier and wait in longer lines only works if there are long lulls during the day for the operators to catch up. And while there may be a morning rush, I would assume most major airports get fairly steady business throughout the day. Even if there are lulls, why is having customers arrive an extra hour early the solution?

Which gets me to the incentive part. While I fully appreciate the efficiency of having security checkpoints pooled between airlines, I think decoupling the security screening from the airline produces a sub-optimal situation. There is a complete lack of accountability for rude and inefficient security screenings. I’ve personally asked to file formal complaints with TSA supervisors in the past year and only once has anyone done anything besides offering me a cursory “We’ll look into it.” Who exactly is the TSA anyhow? What sort of training are they given? I watched one TSA supervisor yell at a woman for 10 minutes this morning for her to “calm down!” I’m sure that works every time. By privatizing the security screening, airlines would have incentives to provide a quality service as customers dissatisfied with their screening (as the woman this morning clearly was) can opt to go with a competitor. And airlines have even more incentive than a murky government agency (TSA) to assure no dangerous material or person is allowed to board their flights as their business depends on safety.

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