What the Transportation Security Administration might have known if someone there had read Nudge

The U.S. government keeps trying to fix the airport mess. In an effort to speed up congested terminals, the Transportation Safety Administration recently unveiled its plan for 21 airports to split the standard single security line into three “self-select” lines that people can choose between. The lines, modeled after ski slope categories, are for “families and special assistance” (marked in green), the “casual traveler” (in Aspen ice blue), and the “expert traveler” (black like the diamond). According to the New York Times, TSA officials have now learned what Thaler’s business school students know all too well: As humans, most air travelers are overconfident.

People typically opt for the shortest line, and all think they are experts. “In theory, it’s a good idea. It lets people say, ‘This is my comfort level,’ ” said Steven Frischling, a photographer from Connecticut who encountered the new system in Salt Lake City and Boston. “The problem is, when people show up, everyone thinks they know how to get through security.”

Like the color-coded security threat levels, one of the big problems with the new security line categories is that they aggravate confusion. But unlike the rainbow of terror threat board, which does so by communicating meaningless information, the security lines do so by using vague language that invites overconfidence. Who is a casual traveler? Who is an expert traveler? For most people the natural answer is me, of course. What actually makes an expert traveler? Does someone need to be a monthly globe trotter? (Maybe Tom Hanks in The Terminal would be the pinnacle of expertise – though he only had the chance to observe security.) It doesn’t look like TSA put careful or systematic thought into whether the three-line system would work. After all, the agency only “thinks” it is working right now.

While there has not been a formal study to determine whether the self-select lines reduce waiting times, (a TSA spokeswoman) indicated that this seemed to be the case with the diamond lanes. “Anecdotally, what we are seeing is that with the black diamond lane, the expert lane, the throughput is going up,” she said. “With the green lane, the family lane, the throughput is a little slower.”

The posted signs say that a casual traveler is someone 1) “familiar with TSA procedures” and 2) takes “multiple carry-ons.” Meanwhile, an expert traveler is someone who is an 1) “expert at TSA procedures” (the definition of tautology right there), 2) “always ready with items removed,” 3) flies “more than twice a month”, 4) “travels light”, and 5) is an “elite frequent flyer member.”

These are not descriptions that help people separate themselves. These are excuses for an ego boost. Take the first mark of an expert traveler. Which procedures? Everyone knows about using clear plastic zip-lock bags for toothpaste and deodorant. Everyone knows they need to take their shoes off. But do you know the largest container size allowed for gels? If given a list of prohibited and allowed items, could you correctly identify more than three-quarters of them? Are “always ready” travelers like Pavlovian dogs at the X-ray machines? Why does someone need to be an elite frequent flyer member, when she can apparently be an expert traveler by flying Dulles to JFK and back three times a month?

There is probably some minimum threshold of knowledge that black diamond flyers must know, but expert travelers are not experts because they can recite a TSA procedures brochure in their sleep, or because they necessarily fly a certain number of flights per month. Experts travelers are experts primarily because they are fast, and fast people are who the TSA wants in the black diamond lanes. So how does the TSA get flyers to recognize how fast – or slow – they are when the heuristics offered so far are not working?

One obvious, but illegal, way would be to restrict lines by age. This would be the type of mandate that Nudge argues against. Besides, an age rule would keep out people like this guy, who could probably put Thaler and Sunstein’s bags, plus his own, on the machine belt in a single lift. What the TSA needs to do instead is specify its descriptions with much more clarity, and work to enforce them with social norms. One alternative might be to post the amount of time it takes an expert traveler to perform a given security task. Fifteen seconds to take off both shoes and place them side-by-side in a plastic bin. Seven seconds to remove a laptop from a case and close the case. TSA might encourage travelers to test their speed through certain at-home tasks the simulate features of an airport security line experience. Offering mock security lines inside terminals for waiting passengers to test their speed might be too gimmicky. Then again, being stranded in an airport because of flight delays watching CNN headlines makes gimmicks look ok.

Another tip might be to point out that expert travelers wear fewer layers because they know they won’t have to take off so many at the metal detector. TSA might create a pre-security line screen with a friendly TSA employee that asks people to take off, say on overcoat, before proceeding to the expert line. Passengers who violate rules, or are slow to take their shoes or jackets off, should expect to hear grief from their fellow passengers. Despite its claims, the TSA system doesn’t fully embrace the ski slope metaphor. Black diamond signs have clear warnings for novices and show-offs about the risks and consequences of trying steep slopes. Airport security signs might benefit from similar messages.

On the plus side, TSA welcomes feedback about traveling experiences. Click here to send TSA your thoughts. An official TSA video of how the black diamond lane is supposed to work is below.

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