Campus & Community

Improving Airport Security Wait Times

Stevens students flying high with first place win at major airport systems design competition

From left to right: Harleen Vohra, Ashely Oliver, Samantha Scarpone-Jones and Shuyuan Jin.

Most people are familiar with this scenario: A number is called and a customer pulls up to the deli counter – “A half-pound of turkey and sharp cheddar cheese please.” Another number is called and the next customer places an order. The process goes on and on until every customer is served. 

What if going through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security check-in process at the airport was just as easy as drawing a number at the deli? A team of four students of the School of Systems and Enterprises (SSE) at Stevens Institute Technology – Shuyuan Jin, Ashely Oliver, Samantha Scarpone-Jones and Harleen Vohra – asked themselves this question and designed a security management system that simplifies the pre-security screening process. 

Their solution, SimpleQ, addresses the wait time that passengers face in the queue prior to their security check-in. It does so by assigning different group numbers to individuals and parties waiting for their TSA security check-in, similar to getting a number at a deli. 

Award-winning solution

SimpleQ was recently awarded top honors at the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) design competition in the Airport Operations and Maintenance category. Sponsored by the Transportation Research Board, the aim of this competition is to spur innovative thinking in solving some of today’s toughest airport systems challenges, and give students valuable educational experiences and quality exposure to careers in aviation and airport operations. 

The team received their award at the Keck Center of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and were invited to present their designs to industry experts as the Keynote Luncheon Speakers at the Airport Consultants Council’s Technical Workshop.

"I am very happy for the team,” said Eirik Hole, professor in the School of Systems and Enterprises and the team’s advisor. “They identified a problem to solve that has received a lot of attention: the dramatic increase in time travelers spend waiting in security-lines at airports.” 

With SimpleQ, passengers in the queue wait for their numbers to be called in the system before going to the TSA security checkpoint line, giving them extra time to do other activities while they are in the airport. The main interface of the SimpleQ app advises users about their group number and estimated time for being called to the security queue. Users can postpone their security check-in time, set up a party, and monitor the number of people in the queue. The app also address issues such as people traveling together and missing allotted time. After checking in, passengers can choose to scan the barcode using the SimpleQ app, or just enter a cell phone number if they do not have the app.

Identifying which issue to address

While there are plenty of choke points throughout airport systems – air traffic control, runway operations and energy infrastructure to name a few – there are also opportunities to come up with novel solutions to common airport problems. But identifying which issue was worth pursuing remained unclear at the outset of the project. 

“We struggled at first coming up with a consensus on what problem was worth fixing,” said Ashely Oliver. “But we overcame this by brainstorming with each other, as well as our advisor, until we had a clear vision of what we wanted to move forward with.” 

The team spoke to frequent airport visitors to find out about the biggest issues they faced and discovered that the TSA pre-security check-in process tested travelers’ patience the most. While essential to ensuring people in planes are safe, the TSA security check-in process can often frustrate flyers who have to wait on line for hours, unable to do anything else. Add more time for waiting to board the plane or for it to take off, and it is no surprise that customer experience ratings at airports can often be poor. 

Once they identified which issue to tackle, the next challenge for the students involved finding a solution. “We had a hard time getting ideas for solutions because we didn’t have much knowledge about check-in processes in airports,” said Shuyuan Jin. “However, after we went to the airport a few times for observation and data collecting, we were more comfortable coming up with innovative ideas.”

“We gathered information and created a variety of different simulations to how we could fix the queue in the most efficient manner,” said Samantha Scarpone-Jones. Through the use of a commonly used simulation and modeling program, the team was able to simulate the queuing systems for security at Newark Liberty International Airport, Terminal C, which is located about 15 miles from the Stevens Institute of Technology campus in Hoboken, NJ. 

The team used the various sources that provided data on wait times at the airport, and observed the security lines on site at the airport to come up with a model for solving identified issues. “The security line is a big part of the whole airport experience so any sort of delay or disruption makes a huge impact on passengers,” said Harleen Vohra. “It was great to be able to create a method that could, theoretically, solve the idle wasted time at the airport.”

Meaningful systems learning experience

Improvements in the pre-security screening process can translate into better customer experiences, which can result in increased airport and airline business. As for the students’ experiences, this competition provided them with an opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom to solve a real-world systems challenge.

“I believe that the ACRP Design Competition provided a meaningful learning experience. Not only did it allow me to expand upon my previous knowledge of queuing, simulation and modeling, but I learned valuable knowledge in teamwork and time management,” said Samantha Scarpone-Jones. “I believe that both of these experiences will be useful for when I graduate and go out into the industry.”

“This is the third time a team of Engineering Management students has placed in the top three of this national competition in very diverse airport operations related domains. I see this as a testament to versatility of our Engineering Management graduates with their strong foundation in scientific and engineering principles, as well more advanced studies in topics like project and operations management, process engineering, data analytics and risk based decision making,” said Professor Eirik Hole. “Here at SSE, this is all brought together by a systems approach to problem solving and design.”