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Psychology, not technology, shortens airport security line

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Seated and without the barrier of a podium, Portland TSA Security Officer Kathy Mafi-Henderson is a little less imposing and a little more likely to ratchet down travelers anxiety -precisely what the airport wants, since calmer passengers get through security quicker.

Time is Money: Part of a continuing series

One of Mike Irwin’s favorite movies is the original “Cheaper by the Dozen,” which depicted real-life efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth Jr. teaching his family how to bathe in the shortest possible amount of time and showing his 12 children that if he buttoned his vest every morning from the bottom up it took only three seconds. Top to bottom took seven.

“I love efficiency,” says Irwin, security director for the Transportation Security Administration at Portland International Airport, who nevertheless confesses he buttons from the top down.

Irwin, an industrial engineer by background, has the perfect job for an efficiency nut. Between 16,000 and 27,000 people arrive each day at PDX, hoping to get through security screening as quickly as possible. The TSA staff has to balance that need for speed with security concerns.

The data says that Irwin and crew are doing their jobs well. The national standard set by TSA Washington, D.C., headquarters requires airports to get 150 passengers and their baggage through each open screening lane per hour. PDX, Irwin says, gets between 180 and 200 passengers through per hour.

How has Irwin made PDX security so efficient? Surprisingly, most of the airport’s tricks involve psychological cues rather than technological innovations.

Here’s an example: Irwin says he has a choice on where to place TSA personnel. He can put an employee at the back of the security line helping get passengers through the screening area, or instead, he can put that same employee at the front of the line, reminding passengers to take out laptops and separate liquid and gels.

When the employee is helping with screening, on average 150 passengers get through an hour. When he or she is talking to passengers up front, close to 200 get through, according to Irwin.

“The better prepared they are, the faster you can get them through,” he says.

Better prepared and calmer, Irwin says. Happier passengers are more compliant, he explains. Anxious passengers slow down the process.

That makes sense, says Chicago environmental psychologist Sally Augustin.

“Your brain gets cluttered up (when) you’re tense,” she says. “You would be trying to take off your shoes more quickly, but you’re more likely to screw up doing your laces.”

Keep in mind that around one in four airplane passengers are afraid of flying in the first place, Augustin says. That means they might be susceptible to becoming more compliant, or becoming more anxious.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ken Alwine, manager of the Oregon Coordination Center at PDX, points to monitors from cameras located around the terminal. At the first signs of a bottleneck, Alwine can dispense TSA officers to help alleviate the problem.

Keeping fliers calm

University of Portland economist Mark Meckler says nothing will make hurried travelers more grumpy and anxious than thinking that the security line might make them late for flights. But if travelers think security is being handled well, they are likely to calm down.

“It makes the whole experience better than if I start getting annoyed by the inefficiency,” Meckler says.

So a lot of what’s going on at Portland airport is aimed at getting us all to calm down and relax. Starting with the security lines.

“Once they start to see a huge line, people start to panic,” Irwin says.

To help ward off that panic, TSA brought in as consultants the folks who know more than anybody about keeping people happy in long lines — Disneyland efficiency experts. The Disney consultants, Irwin says, said two things help: constant movement and distraction.

That’s why the security checkpoints at PDX no longer have single-file lines stretching back toward the shops. Those zigzagging security lines? They give passengers a sense of constant movement, even though they don’t shorten the time to the actual screening.

And the TSA workers constantly reminding those in line about their liquids, computers and cell phones are getting passengers prepared, but they’re also distracting them from thinking about the line, the wait and their anxiety.

“It decreases their stress,” Irwin says of customer service agents, who have been trained to keep it light and make it personable to damp down any line anxiety.

The security workers at the head of the checkpoint line are part of the “calm down” pageant. At most airports, they’re standing behind a podium when they ask travelers for boarding passes and IDs. At PDX they’re sitting on stools and encouraged to make small talk, Irwin says. The idea is to ratchet back the sense that they are imposing authorities, and ramp up the feeling among passengers that they and the security checkers are on the same level and in close proximity.

And there’s another reason TSA wants to discourage anxiety at the front of the line, according to Irwin. Some of those TSA agents are “behavioral detection officers” trained to pick up subtle behaviors in potentially dangerous passengers. When everybody is anxious, Irwin says, it’s harder to detect the little anxiety tells from the dangerous folks.

Even the dogs that sniff for explosives at PDX play a role in calming passengers. They all have floppy ears — retrievers and labs. Studies show people get anxious around pointy-eared dogs such as German shepherds and Dobermans, Irwin says. At PDX it’s labs and retrievers sniffing around passengers’ toes.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Labs and retrievers are the only dogs used to sniff for explosives at PDX, because studies show they have a calming influence, and calming travelers is a priority for airport security.

Pre-check speeds lines

The TSA’s job became more difficult in 2008 when airlines started to charge passengers for checked baggage. Carry-on luggage increased 40 percent, Irwin says. Before the change, TSA was easily able to get 200 travelers an hour through screening.

Nimble employees have helped deal with the increased load, according to Irwin. All the TSA personnel are cross-trained so they can do any of the checkpoint jobs. But the real trick, Irwin says, is knowing when to open and close lanes.

Frequent visitors to PDX have noticed the airport’s pre-check line, which began operating in May 2012. Those travelers lucky enough to get steered there don’t have to take off their shoes, remove their coats or take laptops out of bags. During peak hours, TSA can process 300 travelers per hour through the fast lane, using the same number of employees as the other lanes.

Anyone can pay $85 to sign up for the pre-check line, assuming they pass an online security check ahead of time. The rest of those who get pre-check line clearance simply have been vetted by security in advance. Irwin loves the pre-check line because personnel costs are by far TSA’s biggest expense. And the line helps meet TSA’s goal that passengers spend no more than 10 minutes in the security line. During peak hours, especially in the early morning, the wait can sometimes reach 20 minutes, Irwin says, but rarely longer.

Irwin has another reason to like the pre-check line’s ability to get travelers through screening faster.

“What do people do when they have time, when they get through the checkpoint?” he asks. “They shop, they spend money.”

Irwin boasts of airport spending data that shows at PDX departing passengers spend an average of $11.61 at shops and restaurants. The average for all U.S. airports is $7.10, though airport officials say a number of factors beyond speedy security affect passenger spending. And Irwin says as PDX begins a re-design, the plan is to place more shops near the gates rather than in the main terminal. They’ll have more time to spend money, as long as TSA gets them through quickly.

Portland TSA benefits when PDX thrives. The more passengers who choose PDX, the more passengers have to be screened. That means an increase in the Portland TSA budget allocated out of Washington, D.C., which allows Irwin to hire more employees. And that’s what economists call incentive.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - If all those travelers waiting for their bags would stand back, the system would operate more efficiently and politely. But they probably won't unless PDX can build into the baggage claim as way of inducing the preferred behavior.

At baggage claim, it's survival of the fittest

Subtle psychological cues are a big part of the behind-the-scenes strategy for getting passengers at Portland International Airport through security quickly. But down in baggage claim there is an efficiency problem that has airport officials stumped. They can’t get people to do what they want them to do.

You’re disembarking from a plane. Row by row, people are courteous and efficient, waiting for their turn to exit. Fifteen minutes later those same passengers are behaving inefficiently and uncooperatively at the baggage carousel. Rather than stand back and wait until their bag appears, everyone crowds toward the carousel. People occasionally have to push one another to get through and out with their bags. The same people that were so cooperative getting off the plane have completely different attitudes.

The solution is simple. If everyone were to stand 7 or 8 feet back from the carousel until their bag appeared, the operation would proceed much more efficiently. Steve Johnson, spokesman for the Port of Portland’s airport operations, says airport officials have discussed the problem. They’ve heard that a few airports have experimented with signs asking passengers to stand back from the carousel. But they’ve concluded it won’t work here.

“Bottom line is we don’t believe it will be effective,” Johnson says. “We feel signs alone are not going to be effective.”

It may be necessary to understand the why before the how in this case, says Sally Augustin, a Chicago environmental psychologist who studies how built environments affect people’s behavior.

The built environment inside the airplane is completely different than the one at baggage claim, according to Augustin. “We link certain behaviors with certain kinds of places,” she says. Think about how inside libraries most people naturally speak in hushed voices.

Being inside an airplane, according to Augustin, is comparable to riding in a tall building’s crowded elevator. “You’re much too close to people you don’t know,” she says. And that’s why people in an elevator tend to not make eye contact, abide by an unspoken agreement to divide up the elevator space evenly, and file out politely. It also explains why people file out of the plane politely, row by row.

Now those same people are at the baggage claim, but they’re not trapped in an environment that cues them to cooperate with one another. Around the carousel, Augustin says, sometimes people take the wrong bag. Sometimes people spot their bag on the conveyer belt and have to shove others out of the way to get to it and yank it off the belt quickly. There are no ready-made rules.

“The earlier bonds have extinguished, and it’s survival of the fittest,” Augustin says.

So here’s the solution, Augustin says. Put tape on the floor 7 or 8 feet back from the carousel so there’s room enough for everybody to see the conveyer belt. Put up signs asking people to stay behind the tape until they see their bag. But then, build into the front of the conveyer belt, where the bags first appear, something that McDonald’s has learned.

According to Augustin, McDonald’s faced a similar problem with customers who had ordered and received numbers to be called when their orders were ready. An electric sign above the front counter flashed a number when an order was ready to pick up. Customers, Augustin says, naturally crowded toward the front counter rather than standing back until their orders were ready.

So McDonald’s placed the electric sign so that unless customers were at least 8 feet or so back, they couldn’t see it. PDX could do the same, Augustin says. Use mirrors and baffles around the conveyer belt mouth so only people who stand back can see the bags coming out. As with nearly every other efficiency question, according to Augustin, the solution requires incentives.

“You have to build in some mechanism so people wish to stand back,” Augustin says.

Navigating TSA security line a lot like herding cats

Here's a puzzle security/efficiency gurus at Portland airport are still working out. Not surprisingly, PDX has cameras everywhere. So down in the basement command center, Transportation Security Administration employees can tell which security lines are growing and how long it will take to get people through.

There are two security lines: one for gates A, B and C, the other for gates D and E. There also is a connecting walkway after security, so passengers can choose either line. When the command center sees one line is significantly longer than the other, customer service representatives are dispatched to tell travelers at the end of the line that they'd get past security much quicker if they moved to the other line and walked back to their gate. The travelers almost never do.

“Once they get in line, people are like cement,” says Mike Irwin, security director for TSA at PDX.

That's predictable, says University of Portland economist Mark Meckler. We're all hardwired a little to embrace the familiar, explaining what is often referred to as the Endowment Effect.

“Efficiency really matters, but only to a point,” Meckler says. “People feel like, 'I've been through this before, that line may be faster, but I still know I'm going to get through in plenty of time, I don't need the added efficiency.' ”

So TSA has figured out they have to influence passengers after they've entered the airport but before they have chosen a security line. In fact, Irwin says they've learned they have to intercept passengers as they come around what he calls “the throat” of the terminal and decide to turn right or left. But he wants everyone to know those TSA representatives are basing their advice on real data — if they tell you the other line is going to get you to your gate faster, you might want to listen to them.

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