Back to Basics at the TSA — lean operational improvements

TSA lines aren’t as bad as feared, due to the implementation of new process designs and technology. It’s really just back to basics of operational management and Lean philosophy. No earth shattering innovations, just stuff they could have — and should have — done years ago.

TSA Capacity Management Leads to Long Lines

We’ve seen that the head of the VA doesn’t understand service delivery models and now we’re hearing the details that show the TSA doesn’t understand basic process analysis.  This should be a surprise to anyone with any understanding of capacity analysis – it certainly wasn’t to me – but it is astounding that we have people running these critical agencies that appear to lack such basic knowledge of their agencies’ core tasks.

We all know that the lines at TSA for security checks have gotten long.  TSA wants to tell us that’s because of an increase in passenger traffic.  And various pandering senators – think Ed Markey – think it’s the checked baggage charges.  But now we’ve learned that checked bags have missed their flights — and in large numbers — due to screening holdups.

The Cause of TSA’s Long Lines

The problem is obvious and was well articulated by an American Airlines senior manager testifying before Congress.  The TSA didn’t adjust its staffing model when the protocols for screening baggage changed.


Let’s explain.  We all remember that TSA failed to detect contraband in smuggling tests in over 90% of attempts.  W(ith such poor efficacy, why even bother to do the screening?)  So, TSA responded by increasing the screening time to make sure bad stuff got flagged.  Any of us who travel could see that screening time was longer for each given bag. (If I wasn’t afraid of being arrested, I would take some hard measurements to quantify the times.)

Capacity is defined as items screened per hour or day, NOT the number of screening lines.  When you lengthen the time to screen a bag, you reduce capacity.


For example, if you double the time to screen, you would need to double the number of screening lines to keep things in balance.  TSA didn’t do that.  In fact, it appears the number of screening lines decreased.

What did they think would happen?  And their solution?  Tell people to show up earlier.  It’s your fault, passengers, for missing your flights!

TSA Recommendations Make Long Lines Even Longer

But as I have argued, having demand (people) arrive earlier does NOT address a demand/capacity imbalance!!!  What it does is make lines that would get longer get even longer.  Why?

The recommendation creates a mob mentality.  Since other passengers are going to show up earlier, then I need to show even earlier just to be sure I get through.

The result?

  1. Wicked long lines waiting for security screening, which would be a very tempting soft target for terrorists.
  2. More crowded gate areas with all these people who have arrived wicked early.

As for that new screening system being tried out in Atlanta, is it really attacking the bottleneck, which is the screening time?  I’m dubious it’s all that’s being touted.  It may be an improvement, but my guess is that its impact will be marginal.

As for Senator Markey, please stop pandering.  If you shift more bags to being checked, you’re NOT attacking the bottleneck; we’ll just have more checked bags miss flights.  I know you’re a lawyer, but how about taking an operations management course at one of the nearby Boston business schools.