When security lines seem to stretch back to the long-term parking lot, air travelers can take heart.
A University at Buffalo study on the behavior of security screeners has some good news and bad news for anyone trying to make a flight.
The good news: screeners examine some carry-on articles faster -- up to one-third faster -- when lines are longest.
The bad news: the speed-up only applies to laptop computers. Jackets and bags still go through the X-ray at their regular pace.
"It goes the way you'd expect," UB engineering professor Colin Drury said, but "no one's ever looked at this."
Drury, director of UB's Research Institute for Safety and Security in Transportation, was among a group of four Buffalo researchers who studied security lines at a mid-sized airport. (He wouldn't say whether Buffalo Niagara International Airport was the one.) During 24 one-hour observation periods, one person timed the passage of articles through the screening system, while another observed the line's length.
The laptop speed-up was most pronounced when security workers could easily see the length of the line they were working on.
But why laptops? Drury said the computers may be easier to screen because they're fairly uniform and don't present multiple layers of interior components to a security worker.
The findings of the group, which also included Clara V. Marin, Rajan Batta and Li Lin of UB, were presented at the annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in Baltimore last month.
At Buffalo Niagara International Airport, each screening lane is expected to process about 100 people per hour, said Brett O'Neil, customer support and quality improvement manager for the Transportation Security Administration. During peak times, the airport's five screening lanes should check about 500 people an hour, he said. A sixth lane conducts secondary checks.
Drury said the results are good news from the standpoint of security. Screeners shouldn't hurry the job of checking carry-on items just because lines are long, he said, as that would increase the risk of missing a weapon.
But how can travelers make use of the information?
"My personal strategy is to be very prepared," Drury said. People with clothing and carry-ons ready for inspection are a big plus.
"Much of the delay is from amateur passengers," he said.