The queues are returning: Top 5 challenges security checkpoints will face

Meghan Hussey by Meghan Hussey | Jul 15, 2020

Security checkpoints at airports have always been a bit of an enigma; they are typically the biggest source of bottlenecks and don’t usually fare well when it comes to customer feedback. The screening process is one that is very time intensive and airports are always looking for ways to make it more efficient without compromising safety.

There have been various ways to manage long queues and long wait times such as  increasing staffing, changing queue layouts, and displaying wait times to ease the stress and anxiety of the unknown, just to name a few. But now, airports are facing challenges never experienced before in our industry.

After a grueling three months of isolation, many have grown tired of being cooped up in their homes and are starting to book trips again. All eyes are on airports to ensure the  safety and satisfaction of passengers getting from point A to point B. Many airports and airlines have their own style of COVID-19 prevention and protection, but the two most consistent solutions to prevention are physical distancing in the queues and required face-coverings.  Seeing constant reminders to wear a face mask in the airport terminal is going to be a common occurrence for quite some time.

The next three-to-six months in the aviation industry are going to be full of uncertainties and no one can truly predict what the future will hold. Based on what we have seen thus far in the pandemic, we’ve come up with some predictions of the challenges security checkpoints will face and ways to solve them.

1. Physical distancing measures in airports

Pre-COVID-19, a typical security checkpoint queue required passengers to stand close to one another and place shoes and other items in bins that are can carry germs. A study done by the University of Nottingham and Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare found the bins used at airport security checkpoints have the highest level of risk of transmission of viruses among surfaces at airports.

In response to the crisis, one of the action items that airports tackled early on was to promote physical distancing measures in the security checkpoints. Stickers were placed on the floor so passengers could adhere to the physical distancing guidelines of 6 ft (2 m) between each traveller or group of travellers. With passenger traffic at the lowest it has been in decades, and many checkpoints being consolidated, long lines and crowded queues have not been an issue. As restrictions ease up and passenger traffic increases, many questions arise. The two most critical that remain at the surface are centered on determining where passengers line up when overflow areas are exhausted and the optimal way to genuinely limit the number of passengers in queues.

Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport: Passenger bookings

One way that Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in Montreal, Canada is managing physical distancing and limiting the amount of people in their queues is by allowing passengers to book their own screening appointments. Similar to booking a train reservation, the airport assigns passengers a dedicated time slot to go through the security checkpoint.

San Francisco International Airport: Internal planning group

San Francisco International Airport has created an internal planning group whose main objective is looking specifically at the checkpoints and re-structuring queue layouts and overflow spaces. By utilizing existing people flow technology and other predictive analysis, they were able to test out what impact the layout changes would have to the number of passengers that could safely be part of the existing queues. In some cases, the impact was minimal, and they were able to determine that the time and effort outweighed the actual benefits of making the changes.

Other common ways to ensure physical distancing is being practiced include:

  • Use of queue management technology or purpose-built physical distancing monitoring systems to identify what areas in a checkpoint are at highest risk
  • Staff on the floor assisting in communication 
  • Public announcements
  • Expanding the footprint (literally!) of stickers on the floor
  • Additional signage to remind passengers who might have slipped out of “COVID mode” and lapsed into “Anxious Traveller” mode commonly exhibited by airline passengers

2. The importance of face masks

Picture a queue of passengers that are doing their due diligence and adhering to social distancing but not everyone is wearing a face mask. An increasing number of airport operators strongly suggest wearing nose and mouth coverings if they have not already made the practice mandatory.  It can be a tough conversation to conduct directly with passenger demographics; how do you handle those with medical conditions who are unable to wear masks? The best starting point is from an educational perspective by reminding passengers of the health benefits of wearing masks,  not only for themselves but everyone around them as well.

Giving passengers access to face masks and hand sanitizer helps to ensure that they are doing their part in taking all the precautions necessary to keep the airport environment safe and clean.

McCarran International Airport: PPE vending machines: At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, they’ve installed the country’s first vending machine filled with personal protective equipment (PPE) and other airports globally are following the trend – similar to when airports started selling plastic bags after restrictions of liquids on hand luggage emerged.

Face mask detection technology

Using face mask detection technology to monitor compliance and then leveraging this statistic on digital signage or on the airport website (i.e. 98% of travellers at the airport wear face masks throughout their journey)  is also a good way to instill confidence in passengers who are travelling. This data can also be useful on a more global scale to get a better understanding of how effective measures are in certain locales and what works and doesn’t work. It also eases the pressure off staff who have to reprimand passengers or even worse having to be exposed to those not wearing a mask.

Another added benefit of using sensors with face mask detection is at terminal entrances or at self-boarding gates. With a simple integration between the sensor and existing gate technology, if the passenger is not wearing a mask, they could be denied entrance to board. This can help to relieve some of the burden on airport staff and automate the access control process while creating a heightened level of security.

3. Slower screening procedures

After 9/11, it took the public a long time to get used to the updated and a stricter security screening process. Almost 20 years later, some travellers still get overwhelmed when it comes time to go through the metal detector and they have to scramble to remove things from their pockets and take off articles of clothing. With COVID-19 comes other new processes; in the United States, travellers will now scan their own paper or electronic boarding passes instead of handing them to a security (TSA) officer. In Germany, many airports are restricting the number of hand luggage to one piece for passengers to reduce the risk of infection during security checks; this could pose a problem for travellers who don’t pack lightly.

The profile of most travellers will likely change, with business travellers not planning business trips and governments strongly encouraging companies to continue working from home whenever possible.  On the flip side, companies are realizing that their employees can be productive from home and this could lead to the notion that they could be productive from anywhere.

Over the medium and long term, this could lead to people travelling more and working from remote destinations (often known as “digital nomads”). With a higher proportion of leisure travellers, we should expect an increase in hand luggage to process and a decrease in efficiency from procedural unfamiliarity and non-compliance. Hourly throughput of passengers per security lane is a crucial productivity metric and most airports are seeing a sharp decrease (by as much as 30%), meaning fewer passengers can be moved through a single lane per hour.

This will be an increasing challenge as passenger numbers rise and it becomes more difficult to manage such an impact proactively without the assistance of queue management technology, which provides valuable insight into how many lanes/checkpoints to open as well as planning for the right number of staff to be deployed.

4. Unpredictable forecasts

With flight schedules less predictable than under regular operational periods,  travel restrictions will continue to apply in and between many countries that require additional coordination and communication efforts. Stakeholders must work together to share all relevant data (i.e. the flight manifest from the airlines, staff schedules from different airport agencies, and flight schedules).

The industry is used to country-specific regulations such as passport validity periods (often a minimum of six months remaining to enter), but those are hard-coded into computer systems and rarely change. If a destination allows for international arrivals with proof of a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR test result within the last ten days but suddenly reduces the validity window to seven days, as The Bahamas has done, will all the necessary information-sharing practices hold up and deny boarding to the right travellers? Many thought that Costa Rica would being welcoming international tourists again on July 1st, but the government pushed back the recommencement and waited until June 26th to announce the decision.

Flight schedules no longer follow the traditional northern hemisphere summer and winter schedules, but instead change each month or even week to reveal an amended timetable as airlines are ramping up and down operations triggered by short-term booking fluctuations from passengers facing uncertainty from travel restrictions. As a result, ensuring proper levels of  staff at security checkpoints is another significant challenge for airport operators  with such fluctuating demand. Having proper data on security lane throughput, recent and comparative historic data, and multi-factor booking forecasts will prove to be crucial for airports to continue staffing security or immigration checkpoints properly.

5. Infrastructure issues

Airports weren’t designed to accommodate distancing between passengers in the check-in, security, boarding, or immigration queues. Many airports have mentioned that they have a maximum capacity utilization of 30-50% of their normal throughput, should these distance rules continue to be enforced as passenger traffic levels normalize.

As part of the immediate recovery process, airports will need to reconfigure the spaces they have available to accommodate this change. Adopting virtual queues has become a hot topic as airports consider how to utilize every inch/centimeter of space available. Airlines, such as Delta, were some of the first stakeholders to put these types of queues into practice by notifying passengers when their seat is boarding on the airline’s native mobile app. This practice could work in a security checkpoint by sending a notification to a passenger who is in a holding or waiting area when they are next in line to enter the queue. By implementing this approach in the security checkpoints, it could help to alleviate unsafe and uncomfortable landside crowding.

Simulation software is also useful to show the impact of COVID-19 reconfiguration requirements on different areas of the airport, such as security or check-in. By using a digital twin, airports can test out possible scenarios (such as health check stations and physical distancing in the queues) before they are implemented to ensure that time and resources aren’t being wasted.

The future of security checkpoints

Airport operations over the next six months will be hard to predict – with regions/states/provinces and entire countries reopening, we’ve seen an increase in passenger traffic. But with some areas experiencing a second increase in COVID-19 cases, airport operators might pause and reconsider technology or infrastructure investments as conditions appeared to be normalizing when virus transmissions first leveled off.

With many different technology providers offering their own solutions to assist with COVID-19 management, airports worldwide now have the ability to listen to pitches to help cope with this changing landscape. Airport leadership should seize this opportunity, while most are still working remotely and have decreased passenger traffic, to hear from these vendors to see what they have to offer. Although in many cases, limited funds are commonplace, airports can take the most promising systems and select the ones that offer KPIs and improvements that are equally important to them right now and in a few years when their passenger traffic returns to record-breaking levels of the most recent decade.

Although the lack of information to anticipate what the recovery will look like makes it very challenging for airports to strategize for the next 6-18 months, utilizing queue management technology as well as tools to model scenarios are more important than ever to deal with this dynamic period. Airports can react much quicker to new operational realities by working based on data as opposed to reactively chasing new scenarios. New challenges in the security checkpoints and other areas will most likely continue to present themselves as we continue to learn and adapt to issues never yet experienced before; now is the time to ask yourself what technologies will you utilize and implement to take on the changes?


The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

Meghan Hussey

Meghan Hussey

Meghan manages Xovis’ portfolio of US airport customers such as San Francisco International Airport, Dallas Fort Worth International, LaGuardia Airport, and Seattle-Tacoma International where they are using Xovis people flow technology to ensure a smooth journey throughout the facility. Prior to joining Xovis, Meghan led the Account Management team at AwareManager, a Boston based facility management software company for some of the world’s most recognized properties and stadiums. She holds a BA in Communication and Media Studies from the University of Southern Maine and a Master’s degree in Education from Cambridge College.
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