Is There Not One Single Operations Engineer in the TSA?

I go nuts when I see a bad process.  It bothers me so much I had to stop going to the local bagel outlet because their process behind the counter was so frustratingly awful it made my teeth hurt  (take order here, walk all the way to other end to get bagel, walk all the way back to toaster, then cross back over to get spread, all while nobody is able to pay because the only cashier also seems to be the only one assigned to fulfilling complicated coffee orders).

Because of this, going through TSA screening makes me completely nuts.  Screening is a classic assembly line process with steps that include putting shoes in bin, putting toiletries in bin, putting laptop in bin, shoving bin through x-ray, walking through scanner, retrieving items from x-ray, putting on shoes, putting items back in luggage, stacking bins and returning them to the front.  In many airports, I have observed that the long lines for screening are due to a simple bottleneck that could easily be removed if anyone in the TSA actually cared about service performance.

For example, I was in the San Jose airport the other day.  They had a really large area in front of the scanners with really long tables leading to the x-ray.  I thought to myself that this was smart - give people plenty of time in the line to be organizing their stuff into bins so one of the key potential bottlenecks, the x-ray machine, is always fed with items and is never waiting.

But then I got to the end of the process.  The landing area for stuff out of the x-ray was incredibly short.  When just one person tries to put their shoes on while their bag was still on the line, the whole x-ray conveyor gets jammed.  In fact, when I was there, the x-ray guy had to sit and wait for long periods of time for the discharge end to clear, so he could x-ray more bags.  One might have blamed this on clueless passengers who held up the line trying to put on shoes when they should step out of line and find a bench, but there were just two tiny benches for five screening lines.  The only place to get your stuff organized and get dressed was at the discharge of the x-ray, guaranteeing the x-ray gets held up constantly.

I can almost picture what happened here, but since I don't fly to San Jose much I haven't observed it over time.  But I bet some well-meaning but clueless person thought he saw a bottleneck in the entry to the x-ray, shifted everything to dedicate a ton of space to the entry, and thus created an enormous new bottleneck at the back end.  This kind of thing is stupid.  We are, what, 11 years into this screening?  Can you imagine Texas Instruments tolerating such a mess on their calculator assembly line for 11 years?


  1. DrTorch:

    TI? Probably not.
    GM? Absolutely.

  2. Vitaeus:

    You are missing the point, the gaggle of folks is used by the local TSA to justify hiring more folks to ensure the orderly exit of the gaggle from the secure end of the inspection.

  3. Broccoli:

    Warren, you assume the TSA or any government agencies primary purpose is to deliver a product to the most people in the shortest amount of time. The primary purpose of government agencies is to grow their own budget, increase headcount, and raise wages. With that in mind designing the most inefficient system is desirable. Or, from another perspective, it is efficient at achieving the goals of increased budgets, increased headcounts, and raising wages.
    This story reminds me of getting a driver's license in Houston, TX. The state administers the licenses in Texas, and in its infinite wisdom has given us this process:
    - Only offices are located within Houston city limits where the wait times are 6+ hours, they have closed all offices within less than 2 hours driving distance from the city to ensure people have no other options.
    - Procedure:
    Step 1: Arrive at office, wait minimum 2+ hours
    Step 2: Reach front of first line, have clerk ask you a bunch of questions to "screen" you and make sure you have proper documentation, clerk does not record any information, just hands you a line number.
    Step 3: Wait minimum 2+ hours for number to be called.
    Step 4: Have different clerk ask you the same questions as in step 2, only this time they record it in computer screen.
    If already passed a driving test, skip to step 11.
    Step 5: Take written test.
    Step 6: Schedule a driving test, can only schedule it after passing written test, next available driving test at least 2+ weeks.
    Step 7: Wait 2+ weeks
    Step 8: Return to DPS office 2 hours before scheduled driving test.
    Step 9: Take driving test.
    Step 10: Clerk asks you same questions as in Step 2 and 4. Reverifying information.
    Step 11: Get photo taken
    Step 12: Receive temporary ID card
    Step 13: Receive permanent ID card in mail 1 week later.

  4. Incunabulum:

    "One might have blamed this on clueless passengers who held up the line trying to put on shoes when they should step out of line and find a bench"

    Uh personally, I'm not walking any further than I have to in my socks at the airport. I may walk around all day at my house in my bare feet but I'm not doing that any more than necessary in a public place like an airport. I'm putting my shoes on before moving on and if it blocks up the line, too bad - maybe we shouldn't be doing something so useless in the first place.

  5. Kevin Dick:

    Good queuing simulation software costs a few $100. A fresh Operations Research grad, is $75K/year. The TSA is saving up for more SWAT teams because that's how you know you're one of the cool government agencies.

  6. Russ R.:

    They could have easily foreseen this problem for less than $20 with a copy of this:

    It's required reading at virtually every business school in the world.

  7. sabre_springs_mark:

    I find this at every airport. Yep they have the tables for sorting stuff, but there are rarely enough benches to sit and put yourself back together, so you either have to walk 50 feet to a decorative fountain, or you stand there and try to assemble as quickly as possible, without any table to help you out.

    You are right, simply add more benches at the exits and you would have greater throughput.

  8. sabre_springs_mark:

    I think the real answer is that the airport is not cooperating. I find this problem in many airports not just San Jose. TSA can put up a folding table in front of the line, but they can't force the airport to install new benches on the other end. They can request it, but airports would rather put up more fancy art and add more retail space then put up a bench. How are they going to profit off a bench?

  9. obloodyhell:

    }}}} Can you imagine Texas Instruments tolerating such a mess on their calculator assembly line for 11 years?

    Two words: "Vested interest".

    Five words: "Bureaucrats don't give a fuck"

    The answer in seven words...

    I was in Penn station in NYC about 25 years ago. I was due to go from there to the Kennedy Airport. I knew I had to get this thing called the "JFK Express". There were SIGNS in Penn pointing to it... So, I get there, get ready to go, start following the signs.... dead end. Hmmm, must've missed a cutoff. Go back, follow signs, more carefully this time... nope, same dead end. Ask around. No one knows anything. Finally, after asking about 8 people about it, one guy tells me, "Yeah, those are to a connecting tunnel they closed off about SEVEN YEARS AGO".

    Nobody gave a f***.

    P.S., thanks to the delay, I missed my flight. Wonderful place, NYC. Real great place to be tourist.

    Come to Florida, where, thanks to it being Right To Work, even the bureaucrats sort of give a f***.

  10. obloodyhell:

    Fewer pissed off customers is a start.

  11. obloodyhell:

    }}}} "It's required reading at virtually every business school in the world."

    If Harvard grads can know so little, then what good is it? LOLOLOLOLOL... ;-)

  12. obloodyhell:

    Doesn't need to be this way. Florida handles this FAR better. You can get a replacement licence within a half hour, depending on the time of day and, yes, the computers.

  13. obloodyhell:

    If the end is secure then why are so many getting buggered at it?

  14. LJB:

    Thank God I live in Canada! Our security people are crazy, but not this crazy.

  15. John David Galt:

    This is worse than arguing about the placement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

    The TSA has never made Americans any safer and never will. Nor do they give a darn about that fact -- their real purpose is to condition us all to put up with being pushed around by cops.

    The only "fix" for the TSA is to abolish it. Indeed, we should go farther and get rid of the passenger screening we had before 9/11, because it was exactly what enabled the 9/11 attackers to succeed. No crowd of 300 adults is going to be cowed by four men with box-cutter knives unless the 300 have been systematically disarmed. Anyone with a gun permit from his home state should be allowed to carry while flying.

    And until that fine day comes, I will oppose any change by or to TSA that will make it more "efficient." TSA needs to be as annoying as possible, the better to hasten the day that we the people will rise up and smite them!!

  16. Rob:

    I was thinking the same thing. Except, I actually did a study for TSA in 2003 as my project in my simulation class. My group built the simulation for MCO, which actually seemed to improve the flow. Before our analysis, you could any security scanner to go through. The tendency was for the right most lines to be longest while the left ones were sometimes empty while people waited. Now, MCO tries to distribute the entry queue evenly among security scanners.

  17. Steve Burrows:

    I personally enjoy my encounters with the Testicle Squeezing Administration, and relish my time with them.

  18. sabre_springs_mark:

    And what would "fewer pissed off customers" do to increase airport profits?

  19. sabre_springs_mark:

    Like I said below, wrong set of bureaucrats. It is the airport that needs to pay to update the facilities, not the TSA. I guess the TSA could put in a few folding chairs on the out side of the scanners.

  20. ParatrooperJJ:

    They are paid by the hour. It's to their benefit to be slow...

  21. David Johnson:

    The space from the entrance to the exit of the screening area belongs to the TSA. If there aren't enough benches it's the TSA's fault. At San Jose once you exit that TSA area you suddenly find tons of benches. As someone who uses San Jose airport frequently, I know to leave the TSA area, walk twenty feet, and sit on the empty bench. But most travelers are not experienced travelers and don't know this. But the TSA does know this. Also, there used to be MORE benches in screening area. I don't know why they got rid of them.