Traveller’s cell phones signal waiting times at airport security

Cellphones could have a new use in helping passengers avoid long lines at security checkpoints. A number of airports, mainly in Europe, have introduced Bluetooth technology to measure passengers’ waiting times. When passengers enter and exit security lines small receivers pick up the Bluetooth signal which is emitted by their electronic devices. This makes it possible for the airport to calculate the average waiting time at the security check. Approximately 15 percent of travelers have the Bluetooth functionality switched on in their mobile phone. Airports stress that it is not possible for the authorities to identify the mobile phone’s user on the basis of the Bluetooth identification number and all numbers are deleted after the data is collected.

Provided by companies such as BLIP Systems and Bluelon, the Bluetooth technology was just introduced by Brussels Airport (March 2010) and has also been deployed by most airports in the UK during 2009 (London Heathrow is reported to be implementing it at the moment). Other airports using the system include Copenhagen, Frankfurt, and Hong Kong International Airport. For example, in 2008 the average waiting time to pass security in Copenhagen Airport was 3.5 minutes, which is based on 3,500 daily Bluetooth measurements. Airports say the technology helps them to ensure that the right numbers of staff are in the right place at the right time, and the real-time data also enables them to plan and react rapidly to short term peaks in queues.

Privacy concerns aside, a benefit of the technology for passengers is that it can provide them with real-time information about waiting times at security checkpoints. For example, Brussels and Copenhagen airports publicize queue times at the airports’ central security areas to inform passengers within the terminal building.

The U.S Transportation Security Administration (TSA) just announced it is looking to install similar Bluetooth devices in airports across the USA. Until 2008, the TSA’s online ‘Wait Time Calculator’ listed average wait times during the previous month. The TSA data is still used by TSAwait, an iPhone application (price USD1) that gives travelers access to TSA’s wait-time data for 400 airports and more than 700 checkpoints across the U.S. However the app only provides estimates based on historical TSA data. Atlanta International Airport runs its own ‘Trak-a-Line’ service, which shows current waiting times in the airport, on its website, and also e-mails passengers when there is a change in wait times for security screening.

Update 20 July 2011 Helsinki Airport has become the latest airport to introduce Bluetooth passenger tracking to provide passengers with real-time updates on how long they will have to queue at security checkpoints. The system is currently in the testing phase and by the end of August 2011, passengers will be able to see the average queuing times on security control monitors (image).

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