Despite how obnoxious they make the airport security experience, I try extremely hard to give the Transportation Security Administration a fair shake–I remind myself they’re mostly normal people who get searched when they fly just like the rest of us, I read their well-written and mostly credible propaganda blog, and I sit on my rants for a couple of flights before I blog about them doing something completely ludicrous.
Well, this weekend I finally confirmed in multiple airports that their "Black Diamond" program is, in fact, the dumbest change I’ve ever seen them make. The program is aimed at speeding seasoned travelers through one set of security lines while giving "casual travelers" extra time and assistance in a different set of security lines.
They began piloting the program in February 2008 in Salt Lake City and Denver, and on their blog reported an incredible success and thus began a complete national rollout. I initially became suspicious about the quality of the program when I first encountered it in Tulsa in May. My wife and I both have frequent flier status on more than one airline because of our frequent trips to the West Coast. Therefore, the first time we encountered the TSA’s signs describing the program, we self-selected the "expert traveler" line. We noticed that despite there being at least 2 times as many screening lanes for casual travelers, there were only 50% people in that line. I picked someone in the "casual" line to watch go through it, and they edged us out for fastest trip through. Furthermore, in the "expert line" I noticed absolutely no difference in treatment from what I expect to normally get, or behavior of the people around me.
My next few trips were met with a few more trips through the line, and it was a common occurrence for one line to be insanely longer than the other or for people to block traffic at the entrance while solving the self-selection puzzle ("I wonder which line is better?" perhaps more often than "I wonder if I’m an expert?"). This struck me as less-than-ideal, but I managed to stay calm. I just reserved the right to pick whichever line looked subjectively "better" by whatever standards struck me–exactly how I’d handle any situation with multiple asymmetric lines.
Then by June, some things began to happen that caused me to flip the bozo bit associated with the Black Diamond Program in my mind. On one trip, I was traveling with some people from work who had never encountered the signs before, and so they were doing what any reasonable person would and reading the signs to choose their category when a gruff woman from the TSA walked up and tried vectoring our entire group toward the casual traveler line. I explained to her that I travel all the time, and that I preferred the expert line. She continued to attempt to divert me on the grounds that "families go to the right". I explained that I wasn’t traveling with my family, but was instead with a group from work and that we might all end up in different lines. By this point, a significant backlog had been generated at her sorting station.
On another trip a couple weeks later, my wife was flying out to visit her parents, and there was a different sorting specialist on duty. This sorting specialist tossed her mental coin and decided to ask Jennifer to go to the casual line, while bodily blocking the expert line. Jennifer wanted to make sure the lady understood that she wasn’t, in fact, a casual traveler and mentioned her frequent flier status. The lady then backpedaled ever-so-slightly and said that she was sending her that way because "she had so many bags". Ummm, she had a roll-aboard suitcase and a laptop bag, which would be exactly what the tall slender gray-haired Tulsa oilmen in suits would be carrying. The issue here isn’t that Jennifer was miscategorized for whatever reason, it’s that the TSA has now introduced process that provides an opportunity for people to be surprised or disappointed or confused. This can’t do anything but slow things down!
Or at least it slows things down in airports that actually bother to do anything whatsoever with the program. Remember way back at the beginning of this long rant where I mentioned that I confirmed the program’s dumbness in another airport? Well, this is actually a different kind of dumbness. In fact, it’s a better kind of dumbness.
When flying back from the National Puzzlers’ League convention in Denver last night, I kept alert for signs of the Black Diamond program. There was no agent on sorting duty, and not even a different line for the experts. There was the usual bypass for First Class passengers and 2nd-tier frequent fliers, but that existed well before the Black Diamond program began this year, and made no mention of self-selection or expertness.
I finally spotted the one-and-only indication that this was, in fact, an airport that was "with the program". They had a Black Diamond sign by one of the security lanes that was well above eye level, and a correspondingly invisible Green Circle line at the far opposite end. Presumably the other 10 or so lanes were Blue Square. (Or Purple Horseshoe–not quite sure.)
It wasn’t causing people to self-select at all. To everyone who didn’t already have a special awareness of the program, it was as if the program didn’t exist. Yet somehow it provides a 35% increase in throughput and a 20% increase in customer satisfaction.
So, yeah, the program slows things down when sorting is actually occurring, and in the "successful" airports, it isn’t even visible. Which makes this the dumbest change I’ve ever seen the TSA make.