Checkpoint Wait Times Plummet After Airlines Add Automated Screening Lanes at O'Hare Int'l

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

Chasing away unpleasant memories from massive backups at TSA checkpoints last spring, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD) opened five new automated screening lanes in November. 

Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) and TSA partnered with United Airlines and American Airlines to deploy the redesigned lanes at passenger checkpoints in two terminals. The new options opened shortly before the busy fall/winter holiday travel season; and a few months later, officials from all four organizations seem pleased with the results.

"The automated screening lanes improve operational efficiency, reduce wait times for passengers and enhance security," says Jonathan Leach, chief operating officer at CDA.

Project: Automated Passenger Screening Lanes
Location: Chicago O'Hare Int'l Airport
Project Partners: Chicago Dept. of Aviation; American Airlines; United Airlines; TSA
United Lanes: Terminal 1, Checkpoint 3 
American Lanes: Terminal 3, Checkpoint 7 
Opened: Nov. 2016
Automated Screening Lane Equipment: MacDonald Humfrey
T1/Checkpoint 3/United Club Architect: Solomon Cordwell Buenz
Design Enhancements: Multiple divesting stations allow passengers to move through screening process at their own pace; automated system brings bins to X-ray tunnel when each passenger is ready for screening; bins are 25% larger & equipped with radio frequency identification tags 
Results: Average wait times at peak travel periods dropped from 104 minutes in May 2016 to about 6 minutes over the last 6 months
Key Benefits: Improved operational efficiency; reduced wait times for passengers; less manual work for screening officers

The new automated lanes serve United Airlines passengers at Checkpoint 3 in Terminal 1, and American Airlines passengers at Checkpoint 7 in Terminal 3.  

CDA collaborated with the airlines, TSA and equipment manufacturer MacDonald Humfrey to review designs and coordinate efforts on both projects. "We're pleased that O'Hare was one of the first airports in the nation to have automated screening lanes installed in its terminals," Leach comments.

Steve Karoly, acting assistant administrator for TSA's Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis, notes that the strategy taken at ORD improves the screening process for passengers and Transportation Security Officers (TSOs). The new lanes enable "more effective passenger flow through the checkpoint and greater TSO focus on security screening rather than lane operation," explains Karoly. 

During peak travel periods in early 2016, checkpoint wait times reached "unacceptable levels at Chicago airports," Leach acknowledges. "With more passengers coming through the airport, it's critical to utilize new technology to maintain a positive customer experience and ensure the highest level of safety and security for passengers and employees."

Working with TSA and the airlines, ORD has reduced average wait times during peak travel periods from 104 minutes in May 2016 to about six minutes over the last six months.

Improved Efficiency
In addition to its standard screening lane, Checkpoint 3 in Terminal 1 now also has three automated screening lanes. Checkpoint 7 in Terminal 3 currently has two automated screening lanes.

Multiple divest stations at the new automated lanes improve flow by allowing faster passengers to bypass slower ones, Karoly explains. With parallel divesting, passengers can move through the screening process at their own pace. Instead of waiting in line to push carry-on items to the X-ray machine, passengers have their own stations to place belongings in bins, and an automated system transports the bins to the X-ray tunnel when each passenger is ready. 

"This provides a more comfortable experience for all passengers-infrequent travelers who need extra time or experienced business travelers who require less time for the same actions," says Leach.

Items that require secondary screening are automatically routed to a separate location, without stopping the movement of other bins through the system. The continuous flow makes for a more efficient screening process, while also maintaining a high level of security, he adds.

Smaller details were also improved. For instance, bins at the automated lanes are 25% larger than those used at standard lanes. (Travelers with oversized items that do not fit completely into the larger bins at automated lanes are routed to standard screening lanes to keep operations flowing.) Bins at the automated lanes also use radio frequency identification technology to expedite secondary screening and alarm resolution. Photos of bag exteriors are automatically linked to X-ray images of their contents.

From an ergonomic standpoint, automated lanes require less manual labor. Because TSOs no longer have to transport empty bins from the end of the checkpoint back to the beginning, they can maintain more focus on security screening. 

Checkpoint Renovations
When checkpoint wait times in early 2016 failed to meet United's expectations, the carrier jumped in to help. "We actively worked with TSA to find solutions for how to get our passengers through the checkpoint quicker, less stressed out, happier-so when they arrive on the plane, they have a better experience," explains David Billings, senior project manager for corporate real estate with United.   

The new automated passenger screening lanes are, in fact, "dramatically different" from standard lanes, reports Billings. "They can process significantly more passengers per hour, while increasing the security throughout the whole system."

New automated technologies were integrated into the Terminal 1 checkpoint while it was closed for renovations and expansion of the United Club above it. "We'd been working with TSA as to whether that would open again or not," Billings explains. "We all agreed it would be good to reopen that checkpoint." 

United collaborated with CDA and its local operations teams to coordinate the checkpoint closure with a non-peak travel period. It also worked with TSA to ensure that staffing levels at other checkpoints in the terminal were sufficient to accommodate higher volume during the closure. "While it was kind of annoying to have construction, we mitigated that as best as we could and did not see a huge impact on passengers," Billings relates. 

In addition to improving the "nuts and bolts" of the checkpoint, the airline also seized the opportunity to raise the bar of its aesthetics. The project's architectural firm, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, was asked to brighten up the checkpoint and incorporate modern, but not trendy, materials and finishes.

To improve lighting levels, designers specified additional foot-candles to keep the space properly illuminated in early mornings and late nights. They also used a curved metal ceiling to further brighten the space and add visual interest overhead. The custom-made indirectly lit coffered ceiling brightens the area and creates the illusion of more height, explains Tom Chambers, director of Aviation Services at Solomon Cordwell Buenz. Even with a floor-to-ceiling height of 10 feet 3 inches, the size of the space would have felt somewhat claustrophobic without the special ceiling treatment, notes Chambers. "We wanted to address that architecturally."

Security cameras, diffusers and other necessary utilities were blended into the space in a visually pleasing way, he adds. 

Subduing the overall "visual craziness" of the screening area was also integral, adds Billings. With the previous clutter gone, passengers can now focus on getting through the checkpoint "more calmly, without any sort of fear of missing a flight," he explains. 

Intuitive wayfinding cues were added to help guide passengers to and through the checkpoint. "The ceiling flows and helps you know that you're headed into the secure side of the airport," says Billings. The new design works in concert with TSA ticket/document checkers to direct passengers and make the screening process a better experience, he comments. 

In order to execute such improvements, crews completely gutted the area, removing leftover wiring, patches in the floor and other remnants from years of previous security requirement changes. "We took everything out and started over," reports Billings.

Anticipating the need to accommodate future security requirements, United stressed the importance of flexibility with project architects. Toward that end, the new design uses just one row of columns to support the expanded United Club space above. "We tried to make it as universal a space as possible," explains Chambers. "Flexibility is a byproduct of having the 
open space."

Lessons Learned
While data about the new automated screening lanes at ORD is still being processed, Karoly says that TSA was pleased with their performance during the 2016 holiday season. Moreover, no significant issues were reported.

"This holiday season was significantly better-especially where we've installed the automated screening lanes," agrees Billings. 

Given the promising results at ORD, Karoly reports that TSA is actively working with multiple airline and airport partners to introduce automated security lanes at some of the nation's largest and highest-traffic airports throughout the year. The goals, he adds, is to continue improving security effectiveness and the passenger experience. "Building upon the knowledge gained with these deployments, TSA is developing an acquisition program to provide for a long-term, sustainable solution to address these needs," says Karoly.  

"The ASL [automated screening lane] effort is an important example of how TSA can effectively partner with multiple public and private stakeholders in the aviation ecosystem, including airlines, airports and vendors," he continues. "The Innovation Task Force is looking forward to advancing continued collaboration with all of these partners to continue to demonstrate innovative solutions in the field and apply important lessons learned from this effort. Most importantly, this effort has proven that the full ecosystem can work together to introduce solutions that improve security effectiveness and the passenger experience." 

More in the Works 
Other checkpoint enhancements at ORD include the addition of a standard screening lane to Checkpoint 9 in Terminal 3 for passengers with flights departing from Concourse L. According to Leach, the expansion has reduced checkpoint wait times and crowding in the ticketing area for passengers flying on American Airlines, Air Choice One, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue, Frontier Airlines and Virgin America. 

CDA is also exploring an airside bus connection between Terminals 1, 2 and 3 and Terminal 5 for spring 2017. The new service would be structured to reduce congestion at Checkpoint 10 in Terminal 5 by keeping passengers airside and out of the checkpoint.


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