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.
Beyond opening enrollment centers, the TSA is awarding some travelers with Pre✓™ access for a day so they can check out the service. Added travelers have caused some consternation for existing Pre✓™ users.
The influx of people to Precheck annoys some program veterans. Ann Fries says she sometimes finds 20 people in the Precheck line at Tampa, Fla., her home airport. Many get befuddled when told they don’t have to take off their shoes and can leave liquids and laptops in bags. They ask why, slowing the line. Then they ask how they ended up in that lane.
“We went from people who knew what they were doing to people in line who don’t know what they are doing,” said Ms. Fries, who signed up for Global Entry to get Precheck when it first started.
As I said at the start, this is a challenging problem. Implementing a priority scheme (and let’s be clear that is what this basically is) is much harder when customers are there in person. If this were a call center, one could implement priorities by having one pool of agents serve all customers but always have them take high priority customers first. A dearth of high-priority customers wouldn’t be a terrible problem per se since agents wouldn’t necessarily be idle and service for regular customers wouldn’t suffer from having planned for some volume of high-priority customers.
At the airport its a different story. Planning for Pre✓™ customers means that regular customers are being squeezed. But the TSA faces a chicken and egg problem here. If Pre✓™ were offered only at one airport in the country, the number of passengers who would sign up would be inherently limited so it has to commit capacity to win customers. That is how TSA got to its current situation — sitting on capacity, waiting for stuff to happen.
One thing that is clear, however, is that people who got in on the ground floor of Pre✓™ are going to be disappointed when this thing scales up. Ignoring issues of clueless chumps stumbling through the line, simply having more Pre✓™ customers is going to drive up waits. Capacity here is lumpy. At O’Hare, TSA needs to dedicate a lane for Pre✓™ in both the American and United terminals. If only a limited number of customers use them, they get great service. If lots of people use them but not enough to justify expanding to more lanes, then waits will climb.
A final point: What’s in this for the little guy? What happens to the casual traveler who lacks the history (or the money) to get into the Pre✓™ program? To the extent that this leads to better security outcomes, everyone could benefit from improved safety. Further, it is hard to argue with the efficiency of doing some of the checking ahead of time to lessen the burden at airports. Pre✓™ users may be a small slice of flyers but they could be a very large share of trips since the program appeals to frequent travelers.
Now, of course, I am using efficiency in the economic sense of the term — which basically means that cost of additional waits incurred by regular travelers is outweighed by the benefit captured by Pre✓™ users. That is, in aggregate we are better off even though if you are stuck in a long regular line it kinda sucks to be you. But that doesn’t mean that regular users have to be worse off. TSA use to run a “ski slope” program that had travelers self-select in to different lanes depending on their familiarity with TSA procedures and whether they were, say, traveling with small children. That program showed gains from segregating different kinds of travelers.
Program-wide, the Expert lanes have seen an average 21 percent increase in throughput (with some as high as 40 percent), while the alarm rates for both the Expert and Family lanes are down an average of 11 percent.
So if causal travelers don’t have road warriors huffing down their necks, clearing security can be less stressful and everyone makes fewer mistakes. That means less rework for the TSA officers and should shorten waits.