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SAFETY & SECURITY Last modified on February 12, 2015

Screen test

Yves Duguay explains why airports should invest more in the customer-friendly planning, design and operation of security checkpoints.

Today’s passengers want and demand more control over their journeys, and with a large proportion of them using self-service technology to check-in, often the very important first point of contact for them at an airport will be the security checkpoint. 

The question that airport designers and operators should ask themselves is whether the security checkpoint reflects their corporate image and the level of service that the airport wants to project and deliver to its passengers.

The impact of queueing and wait times on the retail and service industries has been well researched and documented in the past thirty years. Indeed, restaurants, banks, hotels and theme parks have developed and applied queuing concepts and innovative wait time management practices to create additional value for their industry. 

Just as importantly, these actions have also enabled these leaders to grow their revenues and to gain a competitive advantage in their industry. 

Could similar approaches be adapted at airports to manage security checkpoint wait times more effectively and explore ways of delivering a better passenger experience? 



If security in general is about trade-off, then security screening is about complying with security requirements while attempting to deliver a great experience at the best possible cost.

Until recently there had been much talk and little else concerning the passenger experience at the checkpoint. Thankfully, this is changing as many airports and screening authorities are now realising the importance – and the benefits – of investing in security checkpoints. 

A number of studies have clearly demonstrated the importance of managing the first point of contact with the client and how this emotional event or service encounter can shape the overall level of satisfaction as perceived by the customer.

In essence, finding a balance is about finding a waiting time that customers find acceptable while keeping utilisation reasonably high.

Managing queues can also provide a competitive advantage for an organisation as, according to the book You’re Next! by Terry Green, “Queues represent a moment of truth; if managed well, they demonstrate a tangible commitment to customer service; if unplanned or unmanaged, they show contempt for the customer’s time”.


Benefits for the industry

In addition to most likely being the all-important first point of contact for passengers at airports, security screening checkpoint also account for 20% or more of their dwell time.

So, wouldn’t it make sense for an airport authority to take advantage of this significant amount of time with a captive and valuable audience, to invest in the checkpoint as part of a strategy to provide a more pleasant and faster experience?

Recent market research studies in Europe show that over 50% of purchases in airports are made on impulse. Well designed retail areas certainly contribute to the ‘emotional impulse’. So why not design checkpoints that would mirror the sophisticated environment that is found elsewhere in the airport?

Could we not supply passengers with information essential for their journey and even light entertainment to make the wait feel shorter? 

Why not use the space and time spent by passengers at the checkpoint for branding and merchandising opportunities, which could translate into higher non-aviation revenues that could offset the investments at the checkpoint? 

Could we not hire screeners possessing the emotional intelligence competencies to function effectively in a customer service environment and train them in alignment with this strategy? 

By providing a more relaxing and pleasant experience, we can significantly contribute to reducing the level of anxiety at the checkpoint; this is not only good business, it makes a lot of security sense as well, as suspicious behaviours are more easily detectable when the overall emotional baseline is lowered at the checkpoint.


Effective queuing

Resource allocation is critical for all service industries, including security screening at airports. Queuing is about numbers. To manage queuing properly, one must rely on data acquisition and analysis. 

Some of the best practices in the industry include the BPSS system used by CATSA in Canada and similar systems used at Bristol (BRS) and Copenhagen (CPH) airports.

In all cases, the barcode of passengers’ boarding passes is scanned upon entering the queue and then again at the start of the screening process; this can be performed with a handheld scanner or through an automated e-gate. 

This allows the authority to validate the boarding pass, measure wait time and calculate the throughput for each screening line.

Real-time reports and alerts are available with both systems. Furthermore, the BPSS data can be matched quickly with CCTV feeds to resolve security incidents and prevent costly evacuations. 

Once sufficient historical data is captured by these systems, it can be used in a predictive fashion to better estimate the arrival patterns and the number of passengers expected at different times of the day, allowing for a more efficient allocation of screening resources in relation to service standards. 

This trend for data acquisition and analytics is definitely picking up steam as exemplified by a number of similar programmes such as Positive Boarding at Heathrow (LHR). After all, as business guru and philosopher Peter Drucker taught us, what gets measured gets managed!

screen test image1

Virtual queuing

Disney is a leader in the entertainment business. To maintain its competitive advantage, it became an expert in queueing and wait time management and, in the face of the growing popularity of its theme parks, innovated by developing its FASTPASS product.

When customers arrive at a given attraction, they are given the choice to wait, based on the posted wait time, or they can elect to take a FASTPASS ticket (paper or electronic) from a nearby kiosk, inviting them to return to the attraction at a specified time later on.

When they present themselves at the said time, they are given a priority access to the attraction. This allows the customer, in the meantime, to attend to other activities and it gives Disney the ability to bundle more products and services in their offering. 

FASTPASS has allowed Disney to increase significantly the level of satisfaction of its customers while maximising the utilisation of its attractions.

Virtual queuing was tested at three airports in the United States – Orlando (MCO), Oakland (OAK) and Indianapolis (IND) – and some feel that it can have an impact in the airport environment.

In an article published in Industrial Engineer, Joseph Narens noted: “Because a portion of passengers arrive at the checkpoint closer to their flight departure time, with a virtual queue, both the mean and standard deviation of the arrival distribution experience a shift.”

So, virtual queuing could benefit airports where the traffic pattern is governed by peaks and troughs, however, that benefit is not as evident for those airports with a constant demand throughout the day. 

It would appear that airports with a combination of heavy charter and scheduled traffic would be able to redistribute peak demands by using virtual queuing. Of course, it requires airports to rethink their commercial strategy concerning the bundling of their services before and after the checkpoint.

Nevertheless, with big data and the integration of airports’ information systems, virtual queuing could yield even more benefits in the future.


Express lanes and reservations

In Canada, airports such as Montréal-Trudeau (YUL) are testing a reservation system, SecurXpress, where passengers checking in online can ask the airport authority for a dedicated screening time. 

As with virtual queuing, passengers presenting themselves at the specified time will be given priority access. More trials and data analysis will be required to test the efficiency of those products, but we can already see how virtual queueing and reservation systems could normalise arrival patterns of passengers and smooth out some of the high traffic peaks. 

In the long-run however, there is no doubt that a risk-based approach based on passenger differentiation (Nexus, Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check) is the best sustainable solution for the industry, but that’s another topic altogether!


Valuing passengers’ waiting time

Why not reduce anxiety levels at airport security queues by letting passengers know how long they are expected to wait, by posting wait times and by communicating service standards? 

Come to think of it, why don’t airports use their personnel and social media platforms to inform, engage and reassure passengers?


Wonderful Copenhagen

One of the best examples of valuing passengers’ time is offered by Copenhagen Airport (CPH), which posts wait times at various locations in the terminal and has automated certain processes (e-gates) to increase the flow while reducing costs.

Indeed, the CPH checkpoint is well designed, pleasant and integrated with the overall look and feel of the terminal. It has also instated a service level standard where passengers are not expected to wait more than five minutes. 

In 2012, they not only met that target but actually exceeded it, as the average wait time was under four minutes, exemplifying another golden principle in managing wait time – if you believe the waiting time is going to be nine minutes, promise ten, not eight, as people are pleasantly surprised when they are serviced a little quicker than they were prepared to wait.

It’s encouraging to see that measuring and providing wait time information to passengers is becoming more prevalent, as exemplified by the recent adoption of similar services at Hamburg and Washington Dulles. 

Wait time information is also now available in Canada, through CATSA’s website and participating airports.


Customer-friendly environment

With wealthy and older customers expected to travel more often than ever before in the future, it would be wise to design a comfortable checkpoint by providing simple solutions such as anti-fatigue floor covering and flexible seating capacity. 

In that regard, the recent redesign of a security checkpoint at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) is a good example to emulate based on the glowing comments from passengers who described the new-look facility as “a pleasant experience” and a “sophisticated environment”.

The new design and configuration at DFW resulted in a higher throughput and lower wait times, translating into higher commercial benefits for the airport’s retail area.

There is no doubt that we can reduce anxiety and increase passenger satisfaction through design and by investing in the look and feel
of the checkpoint. 

Indeed, providing a pleasant environment will not only translate into happier customers but it will also affect screeners positively.


Finding and training the right screeners 

Besides tackling the issues of queuing and wait time management, an airport authority must also address human performance at the checkpoint. 

We need to find screeners possessing what I like to refer to as the service DNA, where genes are replaced by ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (EI) competencies!

I believe that extensive research by Daniel Goleman and others proves that there is no longer any doubt that employees who possess the social and personal competencies linked to EI are the most effective, efficient and customer-service focused.

They possess the self-awareness required to manage their own feelings and the empathy to recognise passengers’ emotions, and the capacity to adapt well to changes and to learn on the job. Furthermore, they are self-motivated and possess a capacity to manage their stress well. 

We often hear about the ‘tone at the top’, but I also like to refer to the ‘tone in the middle’, to stress the importance of the first level of supervision as a key source of motivation, engagement and job satisfaction for the screening employees. 

Selecting supervisors based on their ethical values, EI competencies and leadership skills will yield great dividends not only for the screening authority but for the passengers as well.


The merger of security and commercial interests

Security checkpoints are where commercial and security interests can merge to benefit operators, passengers and screeners. 

Indeed, planning and investing in the design of checkpoints, applying innovative queuing techniques, valuing the time passengers spend waiting and offering security services with aptly recruited and trained personnel are sources of value creation that have not yet been fully exploited!

For airport authorities, it’s a means to increase non-aviation revenues as happy customers are more likely to buy goods and services on impulse after leaving the checkpoints. 

From a strict security perspective, lowering anxiety at the checkpoint will lower the emotional baseline, which in turn is more conducive to detecting suspicious behaviours.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote a long time ago that “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” 

And that’s what we want as well: we want to bring back some of the excitement and fun of flying. The master was again well ahead of his time!

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