Photographer: David Goldman/AP

Your Thanksgiving Airport Slog Is About to Get a Little Better

Three of the nation’s busiest airports have some new technology aimed at speeding up the line. Keep it moving, people.

U.S. airlines grapple with a lopsided reality: While a huge amount of revenue flows from a small pool of sky warriors, the vast majority of customers pony up for a ticket just once a year. This time of year. 

That annual, massive airborne migration begins this weekend as Thanksgiving approaches, and it will come just in time to test new, automated security-screening technology at three of the nation’s busiest airports. The carriers’ trade group, Airlines for America, predicts that 27.3 million people will fly over the 12 days it counts as the Thanksgiving travel period, a 2.5 percent increase from 2015. The new systems, which are likely to spread nationwide in the coming years, aim to speed you on your way even faster and avoid pileups such as those that brought airports to a standstill last spring.

Delta Air Lines Inc. and the Transportation Security Administration launched the first such system in Atlanta earlier this year and claim that the automated security lanes—ASLs in TSA lingo—move about 30 percent more passengers in a given period, compared with the traditional ones. The lanes have a parallel automated conveyor system that removes the need for staff to shuttle empty bins back to the queue. 

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Illustration: Stephanie Davidson

United Continental Holdings Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc., with the TSA, also announced new ASLs at Chicago O’Hare International Airport this week. American has completed two new lanes at Terminal 3. The ones for United, in Terminal 1, include lanes for people enrolled in the TSA PreCheck program. United opened some new lanes at Los Angeles International Airport in October and planned to open some at its Newark Liberty International Airport hub in New Jersey before the Thanksgiving rush. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, which vies with O’Hare for the title of busiest, is also adding several security lanes over the next six months, including one expected to open by next week.

The automated bin systems are part of a broader technology push by airlines and the TSA to improve airport screening efficiency nationwide. The lanes’ costs are typically shared by the airport, TSA, and airlines.

The automated bins are roughly 25 percent larger than the gray tubs used in regular lanes and are designed to hold everything each traveler must hand over for inspection, including a bag, shoes, purse, and electronic gadgets. As many as five people fill the bins simultaneously, and a computer senses the bin flow and draws it into the X-ray machine. This eliminates the typical wait for figuring out who should walk ahead first.

“You just go. You don’t worry about whoever may be in front of you,” said Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for Delta, which in May spent $1 million to open two of the lanes at its largest hub in Atlanta, amid a security-staffing crush that led to lengthy lines and a sharp national outcry earlier this year. “You remove a bottleneck.” What this doesn’t address is the worry that someone on the other side of the metal detector may grab your wallet by mistake—or on purpose—if it gets there before you.

Delta is planning to help fund more automated lanes at its other hubs, he said. American has slotted more automated lanes next year for Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, and JFK International in New York.

Faster security or not, it’s unlikely to change the phenomenon of a huge mass of infrequent travelers for airlines. At American and United, the percentage of once-per-year customers is 87 percent and 85 percent, respectively, according to United President Scott Kirby, who left the same job at American in August. 

A TSA official helps passengers load their carry-on belongings onto an automated conveyer belt at a newly designed passenger screening lane unveiled at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on May 25.

A TSA official helps passengers load their carry-on belongings onto an automated conveyer belt at a newly designed passenger screening lane unveiled at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on May 25.

Photographer: David Goldman/AP
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