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Thoughts on Airport Security Design: Checkpoint Construction Practices

By Kelly Hoggan

Well-designed security checkpoints greatly reduce passenger screening wait times.

For the flying public, entering a U.S. airport requires passage through a security checkpoint. Such checkpoints range in size and vary in how passengers and their carryon luggage are screened, but they all have some things in common. For one, security checkpoints are usually built by companies selected by the airports needing them and according to specifications issued by those airports. Also, any checkpoint must meet Transportation Security Administration approval, and construction firms must always build them with that in mind.

"Future Proofing" Security Checkpoints

The number of air travelers worldwide is expected to double to 8.2 billion annually by the year 2037, meaning millions more passengers are flying every year. Airports worldwide, and especially those in the U.S. – where more travelers currently fly annually than anywhere else in the world – will need to intelligently plan their growth based on projected passenger increases. For example, the country’s 10 busiest airports, such as those in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth, will become even busier, as will the others. In fact, every large and medium-size U.S. airport (at minimum) should plan on increased passenger numbers and “future proof” their facilities, including security checkpoints, to handle those numbers.

Working with “Shell Spaces”

Given the above, what should be done to U.S. airport security checkpoints to ensure TSA and its officers can handle increased passenger screening loads? Generally, when an airport awards a security checkpoint construction contract to whichever company secures it, the facility simply allots what’s called a “shell space.” A potential issue of concern to construction companies is that square footage in such shell spaces is sometimes either only loosely determined, or that it was assigned based on a limited survey of space carried out by airport managers.

Inefficient Checkpoint Operation

The construction company must then figure out a way to fit in all the security equipment, such as X-ray and other screening machines, passenger screening portals, benches, seating and anything else needed for TSA to do its job. If the footage available to the firm to emplace checkpoint equipment and create efficient passenger flow, called “throughput,” turns out not to be enough, it then becomes likely the checkpoint may operate inefficiently as passenger loads increase. This factor is always of great concern to TSA, which must efficiently process and screen all those travelers.

Passenger Wait Times

Security checkpoint inefficiencies created by inadequate spaces sometimes also translate into longer wait times for flyers to make it through a security checkpoint. And longer wait times often cause a decrease in passenger satisfaction, both with their security screening experience as well as with the airports and airlines handling their travel. In other words, cranky passengers don’t tend to make for happy flyers while in air, and airlines often bear the brunt of their ill feelings, as a mountain of customer satisfaction index data proves.

A Simple Solution

The simplest solution to ensuring an airport security checkpoint will be effective and efficient enough to handle both present as well as future passenger numbers is to more fully integrate its planning into the airport construction process. Rather than just assign a formulaic or predetermined amount of square footage to security checkpoints – which may or may not consider projections as to current and future travel – airports should more fully engage in the process. For instance, well before the first hammer is swung, a thorough survey of an airport’s passenger traffic and its potential for future growth should be undertaken by airports and the consultants and companies they hire to help them with such planning.

Airport Planning and Terminal Design

Security checkpoints should never be built in a vacuum but should instead be built as part of an airport’s overall design for the facility and its terminals. There are also any number of terminal design concepts out there that professional airport security checkpoint consultants can use to help those facilities set up the best checkpoints possible. What’s for certain is that total square footage and shell spaces can’t be the only two definite factors when it comes to building well-working security checkpoints, not only for today but for far into the future.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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