There's an old saying in aviation: If you've seen one airport, you've seen one airport. The same can be said of their lines for security screening: They're as different as the terminal, time of day, and airport that you fly from.
But one thing remains almost the same: The peak wait times in those security lines are just as long as they were last year. In fact, they're a little bit longer.
Despite repeated pledges from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to speed things up, the national average peak waiting time last month was 13.77 minutes – one minute and 20 seconds longer than last year's national average.
And the national average can be misleading, experts say. For instance, in Atlanta's main terminal on a Monday morning last year, the average peak waiting time was 35 to 50 minutes, according to the TSA. In Los Angeles, it was between five and 24 minutes. And whenever there's a terrorist incident abroad, such as the recent attempted bombings in London, an increase in security can slow things down here as well.
And so, getting through airport security lanes remains an unpredictable and sometimes frustrating experience for many travelers. "We're no better or worse off than we were last year," says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation-consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo. "I guess that's good news."
Part of the problem is the season. In summer, more of the Pampers-packing and vacation set who are unfamiliar with the new security regulations take to the skies. On a given day, 60 percent of travelers are considered "leisure," which means they don't fly regularly. If those travelers prepare more before they get to the checkpoint, experts say, it could speed things along for everyone.
"Whenever there's upheaval in the terror world anywhere, it's going to have a ripple effect back here," says Dean Headley, an aviation expert at Wichita State University in Kansas. "Some people understand that, and some people don't. It's those who don't that can gum up the security lines. And it's surprising how many there are."
Indeed, the bins near security lines for rejected items are still full of large bottles of shampoo and body lotion, almost a year after the TSA ruled that carry-on luggage could not include liquids and gels in containers larger than three ounces.
Another reason for longer security lines is Congress. To save money, it's capped the number of security officers that the TSA can hire, while the number of fliers is growing, albeit far more slowly than last year. Critics say this has undermined the TSA's ability to hire more people and train those they have better.
"The waits aren't the issue. It's the quality of the security," says Mr. Boyd. "We still have breaches like the one that shut down a terminal in Oakland last week and the tests – like the one they did in Denver a couple of months ago, where they found 90 percent of the screeners failed."
The TSA notes that such tests are teaching opportunities, since screeners who do fail get extra training. The TSA also puts a better face on the entire security situation. It contends it's maximizing the efficiency of the officers it does have.
"Every federal security director [who is in charge of TSA operations at each airport] in the country knows in a very specific sense when their peak wait times are," says Christopher White, a TSA spokesman. "And they're required to staff to those peak times. They're working diligently to be sure we have the right number of officers there at the right times."
The TSA also says that during the past year it has worked to extend the layers of security well beyond magnetometers and X-ray machines. There are now more behavior detection officers who are charged with observing passengers' behavior from the curb to the security lines. Other TSA teams are sent to secured areas of the airport to perform random screening of employees.
Another issue in security wait times: the airports themselves. They have a limited amount of real estate that can be dedicated to installing new security lanes and massive baggage screeners. That leaves some airports such as Los Angeles's LAX with regular security lines reaching the curb.
"That's a real security hazard," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa., noting that such lines could present an opportunity for terrorists to wreak havoc.
Mr. Mitchell is an advocate of the Registered Traveler (RT) program to expedite screening for regular travelers who undergo a background check and pay a fee. He's also a consultant to FLO Corp., which stands for Fast Lane Option. It's one of the private companies working with airports to build special registered-traveler lanes.
Still, it could be two to five years before a nationwide RT program is up and operating.