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Sensor Network Boosts Efficiencies at Cincinnati International

The Cincinnati International Airport installed a network of sensors, software and other equipment to help reduce security wait times, and it's getting positive results.

Technology to study the queueing and wait-times at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) has resulted in shorter lines.
The airport installed BlipTrack technology in 2014 — a network of sensors, software and other equipment — to monitor the queuing wait-times in the security screening operation, conducted by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel. 
Sensors “pick up on passenger Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals to provide data on when a passenger enters and exits the security checkpoint queue,” explained Brian Cobb, vice president of customer experience at CVG. With the additional data, TSA officials were able to better manage the lines and deploy resources more efficiently, said the airport official.
“Before BlipTrak, our peak wait times were 45 minutes and higher. Now, our peak wait times are beneath 30 minutes, with the average wait times well below 15 minutes for general security and below five minutes for PreCheck,” said Cobb, refering to the TSA-led program where fliers go through a pre-screening process that allows them to use an expedited screening lane.
This same system of analyzing wait times, traffic flow and generating predictive analytics can be applied to other parts of the airport such as parking or even where the next concession outlet should go, said Cobb. 
It's the "old real estate adage of 'location, location, location,'" said Cobb, explaining how the data could point to where the busiest parts of the terminal are, and may be the best location for a new restaurant or retailer.
As an aside, airport originally eyed the solution as a system to better manage roadway and retail traffic. However, the airport recognized that the system could also help to manage security lines.
"CVG sourced and deployed as the first airport in the U.S. to use this technology to monitor — and influence — security wait times," Cobb said.
A number of airports also participate in CLEAR screening, a membership-based program where travelers have already been vetted through a process similar to TSA's PreCheck program. Membership starts at about $15 a month. 
In 2016, the TSA grabbed headlines across the country as passengers slogged through frustratingly slow-moving lines, including as long as four hours in Chicago. It was enough to have TSA officials calling on technology companies to come up with innovative solutions to get the lines moving faster.  
"Fortunately, CVG did not experience extensive queue times during the 2016 peak summer travel season as other airports across the country clamored for adjustments and lobbied for additional TSA staffing," said Mindy Kershner, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati International, in an email. "We demonstrated more efficient scheduling, via predictive analytics, which negated the immediate need for staffing increases."
The TSA has also been involved with testing new screening approaches. In one example, tested in 2014, travelers placed their bags into a honeycomb-shaped screening device that would allow the passenger to proceed through the security checkpoint once his or her bag had been scanned, without having to wait behind other passnegers. 
The Cincinnati airport also worked with TSA to adjust security screeners’ work scedules to have them in place ahead of large numbers of passengers arriving at the airport.
“We noticed that if [transportation security officers] would start their shift 15 to 20 minutes earlier they would beat a surge of passengers arriving to security and therefore keep the average wait time down,” Cobb said. “With the TSOs starting later, they would get behind the surge and there was no way of catching up.”
Airport officials say in 2016 CVG reached its best ranking in the 21-year history of the U.S. Department of Transportation airfare report. Nearly 7 million passengers flew into or out of CVG in 2016, the most since 2005, according to airport statistics. 
A 2015 study by Purdue University found that standard wait times dropped by more than four minutes from roughly 13 minutes to almost nine minutes, compared to 2011. For the second quarter of 2017, the average wait time in the expedited screening lines such as PreCheck clocked in at 11 minutes, 28 seconds.
“Our future goal is to pair this information with passenger show-up profiles and wait-time inputs to complete a story of how the checkpoint is operating as a whole, and help the TSA develop lane open/close plans based on predicted throughputs,” said Stephen Saunders, senior manager of Terminal Operations at CVG, in a statement.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.