Wall Street Journal
, October 16, 2013
Can Mood Lights, Nature Pictures and Piped-in Pandora Ease the Aggravation?
Can a TSA airport checkpoint be made calmer and more hospitable? That’s what a few airports and a private company are now trying to do. Scott McCartney has a first look on the News Hub.
A private company is working with airports to try to infuse calm and comfort into a very inhospitable place: the security checkpoint.
SecurityPoint Media and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport opened the first new checkpoint on Sunday, with the second to open at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in North Carolina on Thursday.
The new checkpoint has leather couches and chairs just before the queue starts. It uses directional audio speakers to entertain passengers waiting in line with a radio channel used in Marriott hotel lobbies, and then delivers instructions as they get closer to Transportation Security Administration screeners, who won’t have to bark orders anymore.
There are new wall coverings with LED pastel-colored mood lighting and hanging pendant lights. Flat-panel video monitors deliver airport messages and some advertisements. Technology used in European airports displays accurate wait times from different points in line, reassuring travelers who assume it will take an hour to get through a huge queue, when it may just be 20 to 25 minutes.
The security line at Dallas-Fort Worth now boasts pastel mood lighting. Misty Keasler for The Wall Street Journal
Flat-screen televisions in the security line at Dallas-Fort Worth deliver messages like estimated wait times for different points in the line. Misty Keasler for The Wall Street Journal
Bins for personal belongings, right, now echo the colorful nature images used elsewhere in the new decor at Dallas-Fort Worth. Misty Keasler for The Wall Street Journal
Pictures of lush green ferns, pink flowers and a blue cascade of water try to add a Zen-like feel. New bins for personal belongings are decorated with similar images and are 20% larger so people won’t use as many. They have embedded coding to make them more easily trackable through the X-ray process.
After screening, new zones designers call “recompose” areas have plush couches, high-top tables with foot bars for tying shoes, a big floor lamp and a mirror, all to help people get dressed again.
The design is patterned after a hotel lobby—welcoming, soothing and familiar. And it’s sponsored by a hotel company, Marriott’s SpringHill Suites, which gets to post its name and logo all over the checkpoint in return for paying for the upgrade.
The TSA controls only the actual real estate populated by its screeners, not the lines leading up to checkpoints or the get-dressed-again areas. Recently, airports have begun working with the TSA to upgrade those areas, said Bob Blankenship, assistant vice president for planning at DFW.
SecurityPoint, which provides plastic tubs and stainless-steel tables to the TSA at 41 airports in exchange for the ability to sell advertising inside the bins, has been studying TSA checkpoints for several years and concluded there were quicker—and less painful—ways to move people through them.
“Travelers don’t want to be lined up and treated like check-in at Attica,” said Joseph Ambrefe, chief executive of the St. Petersburg, Fla., company, referring to the famous New York penitentiary. “Why shouldn’t the checkpoint be outfitted nicely instead of with government yard-sale gray benches?”
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, airports have been trying to improve the travel experience by upgrading terminals, bringing in better restaurants and amenities, spiffing up lobbies and parking. But TSA checkpoints have been the anthill at the picnic: little changed, much despised and reflecting badly on airports.
“We want to think about it as a service instead of a governmental gap nobody touches and everyone tolerates,” said Mr. Blankenship.
For many travelers, it’s unlikely that arriving at a TSA ID-check podium calmer and better informed—and finding a comfortable area for reassembling themselves—will nullify aggravation over sometimes rude screeners, invasive full-body scans and pat-downs, and inconsistent enforcement of extensive rules.
Mr. Blankenship and airport officials think that if most travelers come through security quicker, less frazzled and not as angry, they’ll feel better about airports and travel—and even have more time to shop and be more inclined to spend money. DFW will survey business travelers who go through the checkpoint in the middle of Terminal E, and leisure travelers over the holidays. Results will be evaluated next year.
The TSA said it approved the new checkpoints at DFW and Charlotte, but won’t comment specifically on the pilot program because it’s a commercial venture. “We don’t have a problem with it,” a TSA spokeswoman said.
On the first day of operation at DFW on Sunday, travelers made use of the recompose-area couch as they waited for family members, and some marveled at the new look. “I was shocked to see the plush furniture and the flow at the beginning,” said Lawrence Lobpries of Charlotte, N.C. He found the checkpoint easier to navigate, but didn’t think it was any calmer. Still, on future trips through Dallas, he said he’d consider using Terminal E, regardless of which airline he was flying since the screening was easier.
SpringHill Suites is spending about $500,000 to sponsor the new checkpoints. Revenue is shared between SecurityPoint and the airports. SpringHill Suites, a moderately priced hotel chain, carefully evaluated the risks of associating with TSA-run airport checkpoints, said Craig Fowler, senior marketing director for SpringHill Suites.
The hotel chain thinks travelers will appreciate the upgrades, and that screening will be smoother. Creating “unexpected moments of relief” fits right in with the brand’s image, Mr. Fowler said. In addition, the advertising at the checkpoint will help SpringHill Suites stand out from other airport ads.
The company plans to measure results to see if the checkpoint sponsorship increases its brand awareness and then decide whether to sponsor additional checkpoints. The new audio technology is one key to changing the checkpoint experience. Travelers pass through what the audio world calls showers, or directed streams, of sound in certain areas so they can be
entertained by contemporary pop music via a Pandora radio channel when lines are long. And instead of hearing an assault of simplistic, repetitive commands yelled by screeners—”Shoes off!” “Liquids out of bags!”—as fliers progress closer to the scanner, those instructions are delivered by a soothing recorded voice when they walk under the sound shower.
Several years ago, DFW tested broadcasting recorded instructions and travelers preferred that to screeners. But the screeners themselves grew tired of hearing the instruction loop play constantly, so it was dropped. Now screeners won’t be under the sound shower and won’t have to listen to the recording, said Mr. Blankenship.
By numbering the new bins and making those identifiers visible on X-ray images, the TSA can better track bins with suspect articles, Mr. Ambrefe said. In addition, the new bins have lower sides so people won’t pile up items, improving scanning.