Another Problem With TSA Body Scanners

I can't go anywhere without analyzing operations and workflow -- there used to be a bagel store near my house whose work flow was so awful and inefficient it almost caused me physical pain just to be in the store.  In large part I owe my marriage to operations analysis, as I started going out with my wife when I was tutoring her on cycle times and other basic concepts.

So beyond the obvious privacy and invidual rights problems, TSA screening areas have always driven me nuts because they are so inefficient.  Yesterday I was putting on my shoes and belt after another run-in with the visible hand of the state, and it gave me time to watch the full body x-ray scanners for a while.  They had been bought in sufficient quantity to replace the metal detectors one for one, but there seemed to be a problem.

While people flowed through the metal detectors, at a rate of at least 15-20 per minute, the full body scanner seemed really slow.  In fact, I sat down and timed it for a while.  The scanner was working at a rate of 3 people per minute. This was with a queue at the front end so there was no waiting time for a new person to enter when the scanner was ready.  A couple of times it did 3.5 per minute, but never did it do 4 in a minute.    This seems like a real problem -- that capacity per lane has been reduced by a factor of 5 or so from the metal detectors.  Of course, it is a bit more complicated than that, because a parallel process of scanning the luggage in the x-ray machine has to complete simultaneously, and before the new scanners the x-ray was definitely the bottleneck.  But each time I went through this week my luggage sat complete on the x-ray machine before I finished being scanned, which suggests to me that the bottleneck has shifted, and we have spent a lot of money to slow down an already time consuming process.   That is why most airports have kept their metal detectors --they need them for overflow capacity.

Here is a second issue with the scanners -- they appear to take 3 times as much manpower.  The old metal detectors required one person.  The new machines appear to require 3 -- one person is at the machine, giving instructions; a second person watches you in a sort of holding area downstream of the machine as you wait for the scan results; and third person is somewhere out of site, on a radio, presumably looking at monitors and calling in results to the second person.  No wonder the TSA loves this technology - 3 times more staffing!


  1. TJIC:

    > I can’t go anywhere without analyzing operations and workflow — there used to be a bagel store near my house whose work flow was so awful and inefficient it almost caused me physical pain just to be in the store.

    Ha! I guess I'm not the only one with that particular variety of dorkiness!

  2. David:

    I understand - I have the same problem looking at poor design from an engineering point of view.

  3. Chris:

    I know the feeling. Our grocery store changed the workflow of its sandwich operation from one-assembler-per-sandwich to a production line approach, which created all kinds of downtime for the workers due to imbalances between meat cutting and the application of toppings.

    Drove me absolutely nuts! Tried to get the manager to change back, but he said the decision had come down from corporate.

  4. CTD:

    "they appear to take 3 times as much manpower"

    Not a bug, a feature!

  5. Roy:

    You mean, Warren, that they didn't try to haul you away in cuffs when you put a watch on 'em?

    FWIW, I don't do business travel by air unless I'm going at least 1,000 miles. Just can't handle the mental dissonance at "frisk to fly" lines with their "special grope rates".

  6. Dan Hill:

    "I can’t go anywhere without analyzing operations and workflow."

    It's a blessing and a curse. I share your pain!

  7. Xmas:

    You're missing some people. For the Body Scanners there are some people viewing the scans in another room.

    The person on the other side of the machine gets some sort of notification of where to check for something suspicious, but they cannot see the actual image taken by the scanner.

  8. marco73:

    Can't wait until the TSA starts to screen all train and bus passengers. Seems like the management in Homeland Security is just really into empire building.

  9. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    There is no boondoggle like a government boondoggle.

  10. eduardo:

    yeah, i'm sure our police-state apparatus will get right on that. because, y'know, 'working efficiently' has always been a priority of government employees. like when 6 cop cars arrive to help the pretty rookie cop write out the speeding ticket to the little old grandmaw lady she pulled over. or when you see 8 road crew guys leaning on their shovels, watching the new guy work. and if it's PROOF you want this'll never get better, i offer you these 10 little letters to make my case: "D" "M" "V". "I" "R" "S". "U" "S" "P" "S".

  11. tomw:

    Warren, you are not alone in analyzing workflow, amongst other 'situations' that impact us on a daily basis. I decry the "signage" at most airports, especially Hartsfield. Try to find a rest room, and if you do, be assured that it will be 'out of service, undergoing cleaning or closed for refurbishment', with nary an indication of the nearest substitute.
    As you approach the TSA checkpoint {I believe that is the correct terminology} you see people removing things from their pockets and removing their shoes. NOT. ONE. SIGN. giving directions of 'appropriate behavior'. Nor is there any indication of where to go, other than the so-helpful TSA attendants directing you to the proper 'lane'. But they do have 'special accomodations' for those who paid first class fare, and that is Well Marked. Bah.
    When you get done with a 'personal patdown' because you bought your ticket at the last minute, your natural instinct is to continue in the direction you were last traveling. That will get you nowhere, as you must back up and go in the opposite direction to access the escalators.

    Try to sit at a stoplight, and wait for the non-existent cross traffic, complete with separate cycles for each left-turn lane on either side of the street, and a separate straight ahead cycle for 'no one', while you think to yourself that there is one lazy smug traffic engineer, on the payroll, who is just not earning one penny of his pay. His laissez faire attitude costs more wasted time, burned fuel, and fried tempers than can be imagined. Wish I knew how to 'energize' such bunnies.

  12. lj:

    I have the same process analyst affliction, and was just watching this particular process this past weekend. You are correct that they have replaced the carry-on scanning with the body scanning as the long pole in the tent. But a side affect that you might have missed: There is now a plastic bin sitting there with your wallet, smart-phone, laptop, etc. while you are getting (illegally) searched in the x-ray machine. So they now have:

    1. Made you add your wallet to the pile of vulnerable valuables.

    2. Created a field-of-view blocker so you cannot visually track them.

    3. Slowed you down enough so that your valuables no longer have a proper chain of custody.

    I don't know how they can get away with this.