A Bottleneck Called Airport Security

Traveling to far-away places is a fantastic way to see new sights, expand your mental horizon, and meet interesting people. If it weren’t for traveling, my wonderful Jill and I would never have met and, even more importantly, we would not be able to see each other, as — at least for the time being — we live quite a ways apart from each other.

Actually getting to those far-away places, though, often isn’t quite as enjoyable. A constant pain in the frequent travelers’ collective behind are inexperienced tourists who are not familiar with certain procedures and processes. And all too often, they make matters even worse by trying to show off some (non-existent) cosmopolitan travel prowess through arrogant behavior.

A not-so-express connection through Heathrow

While traveling from the US to mainland Europe last week, I had a quick stop-over at London Heathrow. “Quick” as in 1 hour, 10 minutes between both flights, which was plenty during previous experiences of this kind. Due to a 40 minute delay of the incoming flight, however, it didn’t work quite as smoothly this time.

The problem was somewhat exacerbated by our plane “docking” at Terminal 5 B, requiring us to be taken to T5 A by bus, which cost another ten minutes, or so. When the bus arrived, passengers on two connecting flights, including mine, were handed “Express Connection” cards.

These “Express Connection” cards grant passengers the right to use the Fast Track pathways, regardless of whether they are entitled to this privilege based on their flight’s booking class or membership in the British Airways frequent flyer program. Unfortunately, neither Fast Track nor Express Connection will help you get past the above-mentioned fellow-travelers from the “Nuisance through Ignorance” Club.

The Heathrow Express Connection Card

And so I and a “few” other passengers waited more or less patiently in line at the security checkpoint as a middle-aged couple slowly and very accurately removed bottles from the lady’s “beauty case” and placed them on the X-ray belt — one bottle at a time. And once this ordeal was finally over, the Lord and Lady Slowpoke still had to be told to also properly empty their pockets, and how to walk through the metal detector — one person at a time.

Turns out, these two were just the opening act for the party of passengers that was next in line: a Mom with two small kids plus Grandma in tow, and all of them behaved as if they had never seen the inside of an airport before. Ever.

Their discussions with the security personnel went on for what felt like hours, as these people were not only clueless about what they had to place on the belt, but seemed to have some non-trivial language issues with the security staff, as well.

Not surprisingly, the kids were running around nervously, and I did feel sorry for them, because they were obviously pretty scared about the whole situation. In the meantime, Mom and Grandma gently transitioned into that infamous “I try to hide my cluelessness through arrogance” mode.

And there even was a final tasty blob of cream to top it all off: when they had finally managed to proceed through the metal detector and arrived at the other end of the baggage belt, they started mimicking the previous couple by taking their shit from the belt one frickin’ item at a time. Pick it up from the belt, walk it over to a close-by table, walk back to the belt, move one of the kids out of harms way, pick up another item…

These baggage belts at Terminal 5 sport a very cool technical feature: at the end of the X-ray belt, a little overhead camera checks whether the trays are empty before they enter a tunnel through which they are taken back to the beginning of the belt. If there is still stuff inside a tray, the belt is stopped until the passenger has removed all of their belongings. Which means that, while the belt is stopped, the passengers who are next in line have to wait for their trays to come out of the X-ray machine. And those waiting at the beginning of the belt have to wait before they can put their things onto the belt.

Since Miss I-Don’t-Travel-All-That-Much-Really took an excruciatingly long time to empty her tray — and, it almost seemed, did so on purpose –, she created a tray traffic jam on that belt that rivaled what you see on the M251 during rush hour. And as a result of that, other passenger could not get their stuff, because most of the belt is fenced off by a glass tunnel to prevent people from grabbing things that aren’t theirs.

At this point, having just gotten off a 9-hour overnighter, I couldn’t help but utter “Some people should just not fly”, which was immediately greeted by a heart-felt “Yeah, I think you’re right” by the person standing next to me, and nods all-around.

“Flight closing”

When I had finally collected all my stuff, tied my shoes, etc., and headed for my gate, the first destination board I saw listed my flight as “closing.”

I never thought that all those countless hours I had spent on playing car racing games would ever pay off, but when I hurried to my gate through typical Heathrow people-traffic, I was amazed how my PlayStation-Formula-1-game-trained eye found openings in that very traffic, enabling me to out-maneuver everyone around me and find a reasonably quick path through that crowd.

In return for my brave efforts, I was greeted by the checkered flag at my gate. OK, not quite a checkered flag, but they were waiting for me, as I heard a voice shouting “Mr Wolters? Mr WOLTERS?!?” in my direction. And as befits a winner, I stuck out my right index finger (my left hand was clutching my carry-on’s handle), pointed said finger at myself, and, now quite out of breath, croaked “That’s me! That’s ME!”

This almost sounds like a fun experience, but, seriously, my heart rate only started to go down when the charming BA lady told me “You made it! You’re on the flight!”.

Getting onto a plane as the very last passenger sucks. Kids, don’t try this if you hate the idea of getting the evil eye from a whole plane full of people. Never mind. It wasn’t my fault, and at that point I was well beyond caring.

The stress-free way of making it through airport security

In case you’re a frequent traveler, chances are that you have already developed your very own process for getting through security as quickly and smoothly as possible. In that case, congratulations, a heart-felt “Thank you for not being an ignorant, selfish ass!,” and feel free to stop reading this article right now. Safe travels!

If you do not practice such a security checkpoint workflow, though, and you want to avoid causing the same annoying hold-ups that I experienced, here’s what you can do to make an airport security check as painless as possible — both for yourself and for your fellow-travelers.

The key principle of this workflow is to handle as few items as possible while you’re inside the actual security checkpoint. To that end, you start preparing for this procedure while you’re still at home: pack your laptop and liquids into your carry-on bag in such a way that you can remove them quickly and conveniently. Here’s how.

According to current regulations, any liquids you bring on-board must be placed in a zippered plastic bag.2 I place this bag in a pouch which faces the “outside” edge of the bag. For my laptop, I use the really awesome Brenthaven Trek Sleeve, which has just enough room for the laptop, the power adapter, and a few cables. I position this laptop bag inside the carry-on so that its zipper — which I leave open! — is facing the same way (when the carry-on is properly closed) as the liquids bag.

How to pack laptop and liquids bag in the carry-on

As a result, by simply opening the zipper on the carry-on’s side, I can grab both the liquids bag as well as the laptop, and pull them out in a few seconds without too much hassle.

Laptop and liquids bag accessible without completely opening the carry-on

Next up is what you should do when you arrive at the security checkpoint.

  • If there is enough room inside the carry-on, put your jacket inside it before you join the security queue. This gives you more room and empty hands to juggle your things. If it won’t fit, put your jacket over your arm. Then get in line.
  • As soon as you see the “door frame” of the metal detector, untie your shoes.
  • Unbuckle your belt, remove it from your pants, and put it into your carry-on.
  • Remove everything from your shirt and pants pockets, and also put it into your jacket (in zippered pockets, if possible) or carry-on.
  • When there are some three or four people left between you and the baggage X-ray belt, take out your liquids bag and laptop, and properly close your carry-on.

At this point, if all has gone well, you have only three or four items that you need to handle: your carry-on, your liquids bag, your laptop, and maybe your jacket.

  • Step up to the belt and grab a tray. Place your laptop, liquids bag, (jacket,) and shoes into the tray. Put your carry-on onto the belt (on a tray, if required), and send them off into the X-ray box.
  • Walk through the metal detector while trying to keep an eye on your belongings on the belt if possible.
  • At the other side, put your shoes back on (leave them untied for now), grab your laptop, liquids bag, (jacket,) and carry-on, and move away from the belt to an area where you have enough room and “quiet” to sort out your stuff.
  • Tie your shoes, put your belt back on, and put back any items you had removed from your pants and shirt, making sure that you haven’t left anything behind.
  • Get your carry-on, head to your gate, and enjoy your — possibly new-found — travel-savvy!

A usability view of security checkpoints

I tried to give this story a funny twist here and there to make a reasonably entertaining read. Nevertheless, experiences such as these also point to a serious underlying problem.

Most modern airports have big signs that explain how to prepare for, and get through, security checkpoints. And yet, there seem to be so many people who still don’t get it. You just have to come to the conclusion that the people who designed the security checkpoints — the spacial arrangement of the checkpoint stations, the signs, the overall process — have failed pretty badly.

The process is fairly simple, really. In essence, it works like this:

  • Put everything on the belt except your pants/skirt, shirt/blouse, socks, and underwear.
  • Keep liquids together in a clear plastic bag (as per detailed regulations/instructions).
  • Take your laptop, similar devices, and the liquids bag out of your travel bag.

It really does not go beyond this, or does it? And it should not be too difficult to design signage that explains these steps so that anyone can comprehend it. Am I asking too much when I expect a place as sensitive to hiccups in “people-flows,” and with such huge revenue streams, as an airport, to invest in actual user testing of signage? With people from many different countries and cultural backgrounds?

Heck, place a UI researcher right at the entrance to the security queue, and ask the real-world passengers whether a) they have actually spotted any signs with instructions, and b) they understand what those signs are saying. Shouldn’t be all that complicated, right?

The very least the company operating an airport could do is ensure that any instructions they do put up have been written by people who know the language. In other words, please do spare us from crappy English like “1. Take a bowl. 2. Inlay the objects.” I swear I saw these exact phrases at the international(!) airport of Düsseldorf, Germany, a while ago!

Even with proper, intuitive signage in place, people would most likely still make mistakes. People get nervous and insecure when confronted with an unfamiliar situation, especially when rushed through, and/or caught in, a big crowd. When this does happen, why don’t security lines have a “step-aside” area at the beginning of the X-ray belt, so if someone is ill-prepared, they can be moved there for sorting out their things without standing in other passengers’ way?

Dare I say it? The root problem here is bad usability. Bad usability at a grand scale. Bad usability of explaining the process of getting through airport security, and bad usability of the “apparatus” that is used to perform the checks: the waiting areas, walkways, and conveyor belts of the checkpoints.

Wouldn’t that be a great challenge for a talented UX designer: start from scratch and develop an optimized process that allows passengers to be relaxed and vacation-happy while going through security as well as afterwards.

Until that happens, though, I should probably put some home-made instructions into my wallet: “Take a deep breath. And another one. And remember that this, too, shall pass. Eventually.” is what it’ll say.

  1. The infamous “London Orbital” motorway, which is also known as “the world’s biggest car park.” 

  2. If you don’t know what items you are allowed to pack in your checked and/or carry-on baggage to begin with, do read up on the applicable regulations

Share this: del.icio.usDiggreddit

3 Readers have commented on this article:

Subscribe to this article's comments

  1. Ralf Bergs

    You made my day, buddy. :-D

  2. Jochen Wolters

    One man’s joy… ;)

  3. RiotNrrd

    Heh, I spotted that sign at DUS too…