Tighter Security Creates Tail Wind at Terminal

Aug. 25, 2006
Planes and passengers move faster as security trends push baggage into the hold

Aug. 24--Planes, passengers moving faster

Slowing down only to take off her boots to be X-rayed, Linda Summars breezed through security in Oklahoma City and right onto a Southwest Airlines plane headed to Baltimore.

The designer traveling this week from Yukon, Okla., said there was plenty of overhead bin space, which she didn't need because she carried only her laptop.

And her flight?

"They made a quick trip of it," she said. "It arrived early."

It seems there are unintended benefits from new security rules that ban liquids in carry-ons: shorter security lines, faster airplane boarding and, maybe, more on-time flights.

The number of planes pulling up to the gate on schedule at the nation's largest airports, including BWI, has inched up in the week and a half since the rules went into effect. Some aviation experts say that could be because more people are checking their bulky belongings instead of carrying them aboard -- 20 percent to 25 percent more, some airlines report.

They add that on-time arrivals are not necessarily due to less carry-on luggage in the cabin; weather and air traffic also affect arrival times. They also say 12 days is scant time to draw any long-term conclusions. And not everyone is happy to forgo drinks, hair gel and convenience to wait in extra lines to check and collect baggage -- which might be overwhelming airlines and getting lost or beat up along the way.

But, at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport this week, a different culture has emerged as a result of changes imposed Aug. 10 after the London terror plot was exposed. And passengers report some of it is kind of nice.

Fewer passengers are gumming up security lines and cabin aisles with roll-on luggage that had become so common that some carriers added extra bin space. The lines in midmornings didn't seem to ever get more than five deep.

Yesterday morning, Jill Dumas took off her flip-flops, dropped her small tan purse on the X-ray conveyor belt and walked through in about two minutes. She, like Summars, had waited in a slightly longer line to check her luggage. Both said they usually carry on their bags.

"I brought hair spray and other things, and I didn't want the drama and the hassle of figuring out what I could carry on," said Dumas, headed on vacation to Los Angeles. "It should be faster because they always want to go through my bag and want me to strip down. That won't happen."

BWI officials say security lines on Aug. 11, the day after the new rules went into effect and a normally busy Friday, averaged eight minutes. The Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for security, said BWI lines have been virtually unchanged since the new rules. They aim to get passengers through in less than 15 minutes.

The two biggest airlines at BWI say boarding times are mixed. Southwest Airlines, with the industry's fastest airplane turn-around times, said some flights have shaved minutes and others haven't. AirTran Airways said an average of four minutes has been cut from boarding.

Both say that checked baggage is up and that poses an operational challenge at the other end. Judy Graham-Weaver, an AirTran spokeswoman, said the carrier is paying overtime and moving other workers in to help.

"Customers certainly have proven to us they adapt," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group. "We've not seen the full month, but early on we haven't seen fall-off in the number of people scheduled to fly, and we've seen smooth operations. It's anyone's guess if things will stay this way in the long term."

The airlines always want passengers to board faster. Slow turn-around times mean fewer flights can be scheduled in a day; unexpected delays are costly in worker pay, fuel and lost flights.

Carriers have experimented with a host of new methods of boarding. Some still load passengers back to front, but others load window seats first and aisles last. Some board randomly.

Ski Panos, a Southwest customer service agent from El Paso, Texas, said baggage has long been an issue. But since so many more people began checking bags, she has seen planes load in less than 10 minutes. The airline has said that it turns around planes in an average of 25 minutes with about 15 used to load passengers.

"There's no stopping in the aisles," she said yesterday while traveling through BWI. "No fuss."

Flight attendants have been fighting for federal bag restrictions for years and the new rules have had the same effect, said Thom McDaniel, president of the Transport Workers Union that represents about 8,500 Southwest flight attendants.

"I think it's unfortunate why the rules had to be put in place, but it's made the lives of flight attendants a lot easier," said McDaniel, an attendant who commutes by air from Dallas to Houston for work each day. "We went to one carry-on and one personal item, and people were coming on with two roller bags and saying one was a personal item. It was too much."

Nearly full planes had been compounding the excessive baggage problem inside the cabin, experts say. The rules have shifted that burden from inside the plane to the belly of the plane, and that's good for the airlines.

If minutes are permanently lopped off boarding times, the airlines can schedule more efficiently. They can add flights and get more use out of planes and workers and push costs down.

The complexity of the schedules and the advanced booking prevent any fast changes to flights, but within a year, big changes could be made, said Kenneth Button, director of George Mason University's Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics Center.

In the meantime, the stress that had been put on the system could be reduced.

"Airports were not designed for all this security, and airlines were never meant to have all these bags in the cabins," he said. "Sometimes I can't believe what people try and carry on."

So far, the airlines appear to be handling the shift in work. And flights into and out of the nation's airports already might be benefiting, according to early numbers collected by www.FlightStats.com, an online tracking service that gathers information from government, airline and airport sources.

At BWI, arriving flights were on time an average of 83 percent of the time in the 12 days after the new rules, compared with 77.5 percent in the 12 days before. Departing flights posted similar averages. On-time arrivals were up from 74 percent in all of July, 71 percent in all of June and 78 percent in all of August 2005.

Arrival rates also improved at 24 of the top 30 North American airports in the days after the rules, compared with rates in July.

Despite the improvements, passengers still are adjusting. Business travelers in particular have complained about baggage; many of them are loath to check their belongings because they can't afford to wait in more lines, said Henry H. Harteveldt, chief travel analyst for Forrester Research in San Francisco.

"We are absolutely seeing a change in airport culture," he said. "We are undoing a lot of the changes we've made over time. But travelers are resilient."

Members of the Krebs family from Norfolk, Va., say they are adjusting. They normally carry on at least two bags, but for their flight this week they were checking everything except a pink diaper bag for nearly 2-year-old Zoe. Her 10-year-old sister Rebecca also carried a pillow.

"It reduces the hassle of trying to figure out what's allowed," said David Krebs, their father, who was taking the kids and their mother, Natalie, to Montana for a vacation. "On the plus side, I'm sure the security lines will be shorter. And we won't have to wait on the plane for people to put all their stuff in the bins."

Others went along more grudgingly.

"I don't want to have to buy personal care products in every city, so I'll keep checking my bags even though I really don't want to and don't normally," said Scott Stuart, a Boston salesman and frequent flier passing through Baltimore. "This is huge for me."

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