Good news for the millions of fliers facing gridlock at security this holiday weekend: More airports are starting to deliver accurate security wait times to fliers. Unless you're high-mile flier or have a TSA PreCheck number (and even then, you can't always be sure your airport or airline will offer it), trying to guess wait times is a gamble, and thus most fliers play it safe and arrive hours in advance, often unnecessarily.
And while many airports provide passengers with broad estimates of wait times based on past experience, a few have started using real-time data, a far better tool for fliers. In fact, the technology to capture it is relatively inexpensive, says Todd Sheller, executive staff coordinator at Washington Dulles Airport. The airport last year became the first in the U.S. to display real-time waits.
"It was something we felt was of value to our passengers," he says, pointing out that Dulles has a built-in advantage; it has two distinct checkpoints, both leading to the same airtrain system that takes fliers to departure gates. At certain busy times, the difference in wait time between the two security portals can be more than ten minutes, so fliers can get an immediate benefit from the service. The system, produced by Blue Eye Video, uses security cameras posted around the checkpoint area to measure passengers' progress, and is updated continuously.
Other airports are taking note: Late last year, Houston came out with its own program for both George Bush International and Hobby airports, using color-coded times posted right on the homepage of its site alerting fliers to where the wait is short (green) and where it's long (red). The system uses sensors to pick up signals in fliers' Bluetooth electronic devices; it creates a timestamp when an individual enters and departs the screening area, producing an average wait time that's updated every 15 minutes.
Dulles and Houston are big hubs for United, and so it's not surprising that the airline, reportedly, is considering spearheading similar moves at other major domestic airports like Newark, Denver, and L.A.
Atlanta's system is a bit different: it posts wait times on its website but with a little more leeway, usually measuring wait times by ranges of ten minutes. Late Thursday afternoon, for example, one checkpoint was showing a wait of 20–30 minutes, while others were 10–20 minutes or even less. You can also arrange to get personalized email alerts about wait times.
The idea is that once you have this information about wait times, you can go directly to the checkpoint with the shortest line; this system obviously works best at an airport with a setup like Dulles, where flies have a choice of checkpoint to get to their gate. At others, you may have no control over which checkpoint you must use to get to your gate. However, knowing in advance how long the lines are is never a bad thing. "At the very least, it removes one source of stress: the worry over how long it'll take," says Sheller.
And what of the TSA's own efforts to keep fliers informed? The agency stopped posting estimated wait times on its own website more than five years ago, and on its mobile app, crowdsources the info from fliers currently in airports. But since it relies on fliers' willingness to take the time to post, it doesn't offer wide coverage yet (I tried it myself a few times on my way to LaGuardia but didn't find any current posts). Clearly it needs to catch on in a bigger way to become a truly useful tool, but the TSA app also has updates on flight delays and other airport related news.
Naturally, some entrepreneurs are jumping into the fray; the latest is Whatsbusy.com, which uses historical data combined with traffic and weather information to calculate estimated wait times, not just at airports but at other venues like museums.
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