Security lines are the bane of the air traveler’s life. So what if there were clear standards that had to be hit? That gets us this news release from Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA Requires Changes To Security Queue Measurement At Heathrow And Gatwick, Oct 12):
As part of its regulation, the CAA imposes strict targets about the length of security queues for the airports, with the risk of financial penalties if they fail to meet them, alongside a suite of other customer service targets. The airports are required to report data to the CAA measuring their performance and declaring when financial penalties are payable.
The CAA commissioned an independent audit to check the reported data on security queuing and is today publishing it, alongside letters to the chief executives of both airports. The audit identified several issues with the quality of the data published by both airports, and the CAA has subsequently issued new requirements to each airport to ensure their data reporting is of the highest possible standard.
At Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five, the audit reported that the queue profile visibly differed between when the auditors were present and the profile in previous months. In the audited month (July 2011) a higher proportion of passengers queued for longer than five minutes than in previous months. This resulted in Heathrow making a penalty payment of £500,000 to the airlines, the first for security queues since December 2010.
At Gatwick’s North Terminal, the audit reported that there were occasions when the measured passengers were expedited through security queues and again that the queue profile differed between the audited month (July 2011) and previous months.
Did you catch that the fine is being paid to the airlines as opposed to the CAA? Both Gatwick and Heathrow are privately operated and their contracts stipulate certain performance levels (what call centers would call a service level agreement or SLAs). Here is what the London Evening Standard reported (Gatwick denies distorting queue times, Oct 12):
The airports are supposed to hit a target of only five per cent of passengers having to queue for more than five minutes and only one per cent for more than 10. They face fines for missing the targets.
We have written about measuring security waits before. You would think it would be an easy to do but I believe it is deceptively hard. The wait in a given hour will depend on the number of arrivals, the mix of the arrivals, and staffing levels. The wait over the day would then vary as all these parameters move. Indeed, there may be other hard constraints on the system. For example, there is only a certain amount of equipment available for screening and this cannot be adjusted in the short term. Thus even if management is willing to add bodies to clear a peak, equipment limits may bind. This is possibly why Heathrow got hit with a fine. The BBC reports that these measurements were done in July, which was apparently Heathrow’s busiest month ever.
This actually raises an interesting point. The airports are contractually obliged to provide a given service level. However, they are not the one’s selling the tickets and therefore don’t necessarily know what passenger volume will be. I wonder what the contracts impose on the airlines in terms of their obligation to turn over data and whether airlines are penalized when arrivals deviate significantly from their reports.
A final issue. The last paragraph of the CAA quote on Gatwick points to a congestion-quality trade off. If better screening (in the sense of thoroughness) requires more time, then a “good” job means longer waits. A policy that balances quality with delay should in fact be dynamic and provide less quality when the system is congested. (There are some academic papers on this theme. See here, here, and here.) Two things make this setting unique. First, that the cost of bad quality (i.e., inadequate screening) is born very broadly in the event of a terrorist attack as opposed to just being born by one customer in most service settings. Second, in this setting those who would benefit from bad screening can actively game the system and seek out busy times to go through security. Also, for however much you hate the TSA, this possibility that a for-profit concern would sacrifice safety for profit is why former American Airline CEO Robert Crandall argued for an independent security force well before the September 11th attacks.