Posts Tagged ‘airports’


Pity the Transportation Security Administration! They have a tricky capacity planning problem with their Pre✓™ program. Here is how the TSA describes Pre✓™:

TSA Pre✓™ allows low-risk travelers to experience expedited, more efficient security screening at participating U.S. airport checkpoints for domestic and international travel.

The perks of the program of the program include being able to leave your shoes on, not having to take out your laptop, and leaving your baggie of toothpaste buried in your carry-on. All of that gets you faster screening and — in theory — a faster moving line. The program started off being by invitation but has broadened to include those enrolled in the Custom and Boarder Patrol Global Entry program. Now anyone can apply. The trade off for travelers is that you have to pony up for a background check. For the TSA, it allows them to expend fewer resources on people it knows something about so more time can be spent on those it has no information on.

So what’s the problem? The issue is how the system has to be implemented at airports. Pre✓™ flyers go in a separate line and then through separate equipment and personnel. But, as the Wall Street Journal tells it, that is costly for the TSA and they cannot readily justify dedicating the current resource levels unless they can get more flyers signed up (Trouble Selling Fliers on the Fast Airport Security Line, Apr 16).

TSA wants lots more people enrolled in Precheck to make better use of its designated security lanes, which currently number 590 at 118 U.S. airports. Since December, TSA has encouraged travelers to apply to the program directly. The agency is opening enrollment centers across the country, letting people who are U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents to make an appointment or drop in and have fingerprints taken digitally. The $85 background-check fee buys five years of enrollment.

“It’s one of the last great bargains the U.S. government is offering,” TSA Administrator John Pistole joked at an enrollment-center opening last week at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

TSA said more than 1.2 million people as of December were able to use Precheck, mostly because they had enrolled in Global Entry. Since TSA began taking applications directly, some 170,000 additional people have signed up for Precheck. The program appears on track, but if more travelers don’t sign up TSA will have to scale back the number of Precheck lanes at airports, Mr. Pistole said. TSA hasn’t set an optimum number of enrollees for the program, he said.


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It’s been a while since we have written about long delays to clear immigration control at airports. But as this eye candy from the Wall Street Journal makes clear, it is time to revisit the topic (The Summer of Long Customs Waits, Jun 12).


In a nutshell, lines are getting longer and longer. (Also, don’t fly through Miami. Check out this video.)

So what is going on? (more…)

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The Numbers Guy column in today’s Wall Street Journal relates to our recent post on delays clearing customs at Heathrow (Border Delay Data Leave Fliers Up in the Air, May 5). He hits on a number of points similar to what we brought up. First, demands are going to be very peaked over the day. Check out his graph of arrivals at various US airports:

Note that we have posted about wait times at US ports of entry before. Also note that he is picking on at least two bad airports here with JFK and Miami since they have international flight arriving to multiple terminals. (I am not sure what happens at LAX.) That creates a particular challenge for Customs and Border Protection since they cannot easily move an idle agent from one terminal to another to help out for say 15 minutes or so. This is also an issue at London’s Heathrow.

Another point he mentions (that we touched on) is the difficulty of measuring just what the wait is. Here is the situation in London: (more…)

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Here at the Operations Room, we like queues — not so much standing in them but talking about them. Indeed, about the only thing better than us talking about queues would be if queues became a political issue and people with impressive job titles were forced to talk about them.

And that is exactly what is happening in the United Kingdom.

The queues in question are for clearing passport control at Heathrow. Apparently, wait times have been creeping up, passengers are complaining, and everyone is getting nervous about what this will look like when the world descends on London for the Olympics. According to the Globe and Mail, the source of the problem is a confluence of ramped up security and staff cuts (Long queues at Heathrow spark concern, Apr 30).

The long queues are caused by a combination of tougher passport checks, after last autumn’s row about the Border Force relaxing procedures too far, and staff cuts at the agency. The Home Office is reducing the force’s manpower by about 18 per cent from 2010 to 2015.

Damian Green, the Home Office minister, told MPs on Monday that it was important to maintain a balance between security and putting on a good first impression for visitors arriving at Heathrow.

He said in the Commons that his officials’ study of the position last week showed that claims of border desk queues were exaggerated and the longest queue was at Terminal 5 at Heathrow last Friday, where non-EU passengers were forced to wait for 90 minutes. The queues were “significantly less” for EU and U.K. arrivals, he added.

Of course, there is some dispute about just how bad waits are. The Daily Mail (Millions could face airport delays this summer as Border Agency crisis continues, May 1) reports that waits might be far worse than Minister Green is letting on.

However, leaked documents revealed that limits for waiting times at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 were broken 107 times in just two weeks.

The official 45-minute waiting time for passengers from outside Europe arriving at Terminal 3 was broken 82 times in the first two weeks of April. The longest wait faced by non-European passengers was 91 minutes.

European passport holders, including British travellers, had to wait longer than the 25-minute limit on five occasions. There were even 20 delays at the fast-track ‘e-gates’.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways’ parent company IAG has launched a tirade against the Border Agency’s ‘pathetic’ performance and furious tourists caught in the queues have sworn not to visit the UK again.

The BBC has a fun interview with both Minister Green and the aforementioned Mr. Walsh that is well worth a listen. (more…)

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I am sitting at Newark airport and blogging about delays is New York’s airports in the hope of reverse-jinxing my flight.  The WSJ had an interesting article on the fact that New York’s airports account for half of all flight delays (“N.Y. Airports Account for Half of All Flight Delays”.)

The title of the article is based on the following observation:

 In the first half of 2011, the region’s airspace — defined as the big three airports, plus Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, which caters to corporate jets, and Philadelphia International Airport — handled 12 percent of all domestic flights but accounted for nearly half of all delays in the nation. In the same period in 2005, they represented just a third of all delays, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.


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I promised Gady that I would post something about the Super Bowl. (I had assumed that Jan wouldn’t know about the game.) I had though of revisiting how pizza parlors prepare for the game since there has been much in the news about the volume of junk Americans will consume while watching the Giants and Pats. Instead, we’re taking a problems of the rich angle. Apparently, an influx of private jets is expected to cause significant delays at the Indianapolis airport (Super Bowl Jet-Setters Face Tarmac Gridlock, Wall Street Journal, Feb 4).

About 1,100 private planes are expected to ferry in corporate chieftains and other bigwigs to see the New York Giants face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. That’s one of the largest fleets of luxury planes in the Super Bowl’s history, flying into one of the smallest cities to ever host the game.

Combined with additional commercial flights, the FAA expects an overall increase in the Indianapolis area of nearly 3,500 arrivals and departures for the festivities. That’s about eight times the uptick in air traffic for a typical Indianapolis 500 car race.

Here the author discusses the problem:


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How should airlines get passengers through airports with minimal delay? One possibility is to provide loads of capacity. There are two ways to do that. One is hire lots of staff or put out lots of kiosks. That requires both money and space. The Wall Street Journal reports (The Trump Card at Check-In, Dec 29) that Qantas has found an alternative way to expand check-in capacity on its domestic routes: Use technology to greatly reduce the processing time so the same number of kiosks can process far more customers. This graphic summarizes their revised process.

Radio-frequency ID cards (RFID) chips are key to making this work.

The system, built around radio-frequency ID cards (RFID), is similar to toll tags used on highways and bridges. Top-level frequent fliers get an ID card that is flashed at a kiosk in the ticketing area. In seconds, the system finds the reservation for that day, assigns a seat based on personal preferences if one wasn’t pre-selected and checks the passenger in. When everything is good to go, a beacon illuminates.

To check luggage, the passenger goes to a baggage drop point, flashes the frequent-flier card in front of a reader and drops luggage on a baggage belt. The bag is weighed, and lasers measure its dimensions to make sure it complies with limits.

Top-level frequent fliers have heavy-duty RFID tags called “Q Bag Tags” for their bags that replace paper luggage tags. The technology reads the bag’s “identity” as it moves from luggage belts to carts to airport tarmacs. This ensures luggage gets loaded on the same flight as its owner. Other travelers get a paper tag for their bag with an imbedded RFID chip.

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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.


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What is an appropriate waiting time for clearing immigration at an international airport? It’s an interesting question. There is clearly a trade off (given fixed staffing levels) between the thoroughness of interviewing arriving passengers and the speed at which they move through the system. However, it is not clear just what the objective is. From the position of the government agency doing the screening (in the US that is Customs and Boarder Protection which is part of the Department of Homeland Security), safety is paramount although it is probably combined with a bit of political butt covering. Let’s face it, if someone gets into the country on fake documents and then gets caught shoplifting — let alone a violent crime — there will be hell to pay.

From the position of those who depend on foreign travelers for a living, however, there should be a service component to properly welcome visitors and their open wallets. Maybe we shouldn’t aim for a check-in-at-the-Four-Seasons experience, but we should be able to deliver a Marriott level greeting. At least that seems to be the argument made in a recent New York Times article (A Long Wait Gets Longer, Aug 23).

The U.S. Travel Association and major hotel companies have been lobbying the government to ease the burden of getting a travel visa, while the airlines would like to see a more welcoming arrival process for passengers already tired from a long flight.

“We care because international travel is a key growth area for U.S. airlines,” Mr. Lott said. “You may have a great flight from Europe, but when you arrive at a U.S. airport and end up standing in line for an hour and a half, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth for the whole travel experience.”

Just how long travelers are spending in line at customs is difficult to pin down, partly because of how United States Customs and Border Protection tracks wait times. According to the agency, the average waiting time at customs was nearly 21 minutes in the March-to-May quarter of this year, up from 17 minutes in the same quarter in 2009.

But airline representatives are frustrated with that metric because it averages wait times at 23 airports, when the longest lines tend to occur at major international gateways like New York, Newark, Miami and Los Angeles. The agency’s average also does not capture the fact that maximum waiting times can exceed an hour at busy times of the day, with far shorter lines when few international flights land.

For instance, at Newark airport, the maximum waiting time this past March through May was routinely more than an hour, with a peak of 110 minutes from 3 to 4 p.m.

Their recommendation is that CBP must add more agents.

But what is happening here from a purely operational point of view?


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Southwest along with Walmart and Toyota have long been stock examples in Operations Management classes. They have always been reliable go to examples of firms whose success has depended in non-trivial ways on how they manage their operations. Of course, the problem with relying on a stock example is that little things like, I dunno, recalling millions of cars can dampen the persuasiveness of the example. It’s not just Toyota. Walmart too has add some issues and missteps. Now comes word that Southwest is having operational difficulties (As Southwest Airlines tries to cope with its success, problems at Midway will get team’s attention, Mar 3, Chicago Tribune).

Bags still fly for free on Southwest Airlines, but travelers are paying a price in other ways. They’re encountering more lapses in Southwest’s hallmark on-time performance as the carrier departs from what once was its core principles of avoiding congested airports and shunning hub-and-spoke complexity in favor of getting passengers to their destinations on a single aircraft.

Revenue soared as Southwest added business destinations such as New York’s LaGuardia Airport and connecting flights at Chicago’s Midway Airport. But as it struggles to cope with increasing numbers of passengers and bags, Southwest risks tarnishing the reliability it has touted since the 1970s. …

While its rivals shrank their U.S. operations following 2008′s Great Recession, Southwest added 13 million more passengers per year. The carrier also took a scalpel to its schedule, canceling flights that didn’t attract great numbers of passengers and adding more flights to peak periods.

With little room to make up for delays, Southwest’s on-time arrivals in 2010 dipped below the carrier’s historic 80 percent rate. The lapse was magnified as rivals like United Airlines posted the best on-time numbers in their history.


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