What’s your favorite part of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend? Turkey and dressing? Shopping on Black Friday? Traveling to see family and friends?
I’ll bet you didn’t pick that last one. Although the lousy economy is expected to result in fewer Americans traveling by air or highway this week compared with 2007, that doesn’t necessarily mean the rush is going to be fun at Philadelphia International Airport on Wednesday.
Rather than the 110,000 passengers who passed through last year, it will be around 92,000, the vast majority of them infrequent leisure travelers, airport officials say. And I’ll be surprised if you notice a difference from last year on I-95 on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. (See traffic projections from the AAA Midatlantic at http://go.philly.com/AAA)
What I think many air travelers will discover, however, is that six years after it was born, the Transportation Security Administration seems to be getting better at its job. Its airport checkpoints, the main place it contacts the public, are more efficient, and it has taken some other steps this year that promise to make the process less of a hassle.
According to information on the TSA’s Web site (www.tsa.gov), waiting times at most checkpoints at Philadelphia and other airports are down to five minutes or less except at peak weekday hours.
The TSA’s most noticeable accomplishment is a system it adopted earlier this year of having different checkpoint lanes for different types of travelers.
“Family lanes” have been set up at every U.S. airport, including at least one in each terminal at Philadelphia. These are designed to take groups with children in tow, especially babies, and travelers that must carry medically necessary liquids and baby formula, out of the main stream of traffic.
In three Philadelphia terminals, B, C and A-East, there also was sufficient space to set up three “Diamond Select” lanes, using the same kind of symbols found on ski slopes: green for beginners, blue for more experienced travelers and black for experts.
As of early November, 48 larger airports had at least some checkpoints with self-select lanes. Philadelphia will have more of them when a new combined checkpoint for Terminals D and E opens before next month’s holiday season.
The lanes appear to be working especially well at times of heavy business travel, when many passengers can go through the checkpoint routine in their sleep. Now, I have been sent to a black diamond lane, only to be stuck behind a man in a suit who needed five bins for two laptops, a roller bag, a pocketful of other electronics and lace-up shoes, jacket, watch and belt. But that kind of experience tends to be the exception.
“We’re finding that family lanes are creating a lot of efficiencies,” TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis told me last week. “We’re seeing greater satisfaction with the process.”
TSA also issued guidelines earlier this year for allowing a passenger to avoid the line-slowing aggravation of removing laptop computers from carry-on bags. The agency has a list on the Web site of bags from more than a dozen manufacturers that pass muster.
The bags come in different styles. Some have a laptop compartment that unfolds while staying attached to the main bag. Others have a detachable pouch.
The TSA Web site is one of the better ones I know of for conveying useful information, especially for those who don’t fly much and need to be reminded of the rules. As you would expect, the site includes details on the 3-1-1 rule about liquids or gels in carry-on bags (3-1-1 means each passenger is allowed one 1-quart clear plastic bag containing only 3-ounce containers.)
This year’s developments on that front – the regulations limiting liquids and gels that could become bomb-making ingredients – are probably the best news from TSA.
TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, who has his own blog on the TSA Web site, says that technological advances in X-ray machines and software should enable the agency to lift the 3-ounce limit on liquids by the end of 2009. You will still have to place your liquids and gels in a separate bin.
Even more heartening, Hawley says TSA expects technology will be in place by the end of 2010 to enable it to remove all restrictions on liquids.
With that happy prospect in mind, remember that for now you can buy lots of liquid and all sorts of other stuff past security checkpoints.
In fact, Philadelphia’s food-and-beverage concessions were recently ranked as the best among large airports by the Airports Council International-North America, the industry’s main trade group.
So who cares if airlines don’t serve food anymore, and you had to throw out half a bottle of water at security? With the time we hope you saved at the checkpoint, sit down for a nice airport meal before your flight.