Airport Lines: An End in Sight?

“Attention passengers, please put all carryon luggage and outerwear on the belt; if you have a laptop it must be placed in a bin by itself.”

This short declaration is a common refrain heard by frequent fliers.  During the fall travel season, this statement is also often received by Canadian university students.  Taking McGill University in Montreal as an example, over 47% of the student body are international students[1] or out-of-province students.[2][3]  The student body makeup of other major Canadian universities is largely similar; 18.1% of the student population of the University of Toronto are international students[4] and 21% of the undergraduate student body of the University of British Columbia are students who are neither Canadian citizens nor residents of Canada.

As a consequence of the vastness of the world and the long distances students travel to school, many students choose to fly in order to arrive at their universities for the beginning of the academic year.  When one chooses to fly, there are countless processes that take place which serve as occurrences of economic principles at work within one’s daily life; the airport security line is a fitting example.

In almost any airport worldwide, travelers must pass through a security checkpoint and be screened in order to enter the secured gate area.  The amount of staff on duty and the number of screening lines operating is an example of economics at work in itself.  The operators of security checkpoints (CATSA in Canada and TSA in the United States) have the task of thoroughly screening and inspecting all passengers while trying to minimize the time passengers spend in line waiting and the costs related to the screening (wages, equipment wear and tear, etc.).[5]  In order to accomplish these tasks both efficiently and with the goal of perfect efficacy, screening agencies and airports often set screening targets.  For example, at Toronto’s Pearson Airport (which served 41 million passengers in 2015) the passenger screening goal is to have 95% of passengers through the security checkpoint in under 10 minutes.[6]  Though it is a straightforward objective, the seasonal fluctuations in the demand for travel and limitations in the amount of funding available to be used for airport security can cause major issues.  This fact was on display at Toronto Pearson this summer in which the airport screened only 73% of passengers in under 10 minutes (badly missing the mark of 95% of passengers in 10 minutes) with many passengers waiting greater than 30 minutes.[7]  Airport officials explained that air travel in Toronto has been increasing at a greater than expected rate during the summer months and resources (staff and funding) have been failing to grow at a similar pace.

As an economics student stuck in a sluggish security line at an airport, one would ask oneself what could realistically be done to fix these issues.  After all, this is a problem involving the scarcity of funding, lack of reliable information, and attempting to minimize wait times.  For a solution, CATSA and wary Canadian travelers can observe the successes of its neighbor to the south.  In the spring of 2016, major American airports were facing significant security staffing and resource shortfalls causing major disruptions for travelers.  The worst delays were encountered at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago where security queues were over two hours at peak intervals.  To remedy this dire situation at O’Hare, the TSA took a holistic approach to reducing wait times; hundreds of full time security screeners were hired, new canine teams were added, and the authorized amount of overtime for security screeners was tripled.  As a result of this major push to reduce the amount of time travelers spent at the security checkpoint, wait times fell by greater than 90% to an average of only seven minutes during peak travel times.[8]  Of course, all of the steps taken by TSA to solve the crisis at O’Hare involved significant increases in funding dedicated to airport security; unfortunately for Canadian travelers the planned increases in funding for CATSA will only allow for the present service level to be maintained with no reduction in wait times in sight.[9]

For anybody waiting in a Canadian airport security queue the solution is obvious; the funding dedicated to airport security screening must be increased, more security screeners must be hired, and related resources must be utilized to allow checkpoints the ability to efficiently and thoroughly inspect travelers in both peak and off peak travel times.  Furthermore, CATSA must innovate by designing and implementing new processes to allow passengers to be inspected at a faster rate (perhaps emulating the TSA precheck program to allow trusted travelers to be subjected to a less thorough search).  Until concrete steps are taken to solve the underlying problems, air travelers during peak times risk being condemned to wait in plane purgatory.

By,

John Butler

Works Cited

Picture titled, "airport", taken by travel oriented on December 9, 2015 obtained through Creative Commons (https://flic.kr/p/CgPpQf).

[1] Students who are neither citizens nor permanent residents of Canada

[2] Students who are Canadian citizens/permanent resident however reside outside of the province of Quebec

[3] McGill Enrolment Report Fall 2015

[4] University of Toronto Enrolment Report Fall 2015

[5] http://www.catsa.gc.ca/about-us

[6] https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/07/28/as-air-traffic-booms-pearson-passengers-pile-up.html

[7] https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/07/28/as-air-traffic-booms-pearson-passengers-pile-up.html

[8] http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2016/08/23/tsa-lines-at-ohare-and-midway-airports-down-to-10-minutes-or-less/

[9] https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/06/07/canadian-airports-risk-serious-serious-delays-without-more-funding.html