US airport security is slowly getting just a bit better

With long queues, full-body X-ray machines and stressed passengers, airport security can be the absolute worst. Busy holiday periods, like the days before Thanksgiving, can make the process even slower, especially when you’re stuck behind that guy who can’t find his laptop in an enormous bag.

No security isn’t an option, of course, but an improved TSA checkpoint design is slowly arriving at more US airports. Long common in Europe and elsewhere abroad, it may help you get to the airport bar quicker — as long as you know what to do.

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At the front of the security checkpoint are several stations where passengers can load their belongings into bins at their own pace.


Kent German/CNET

The redesigned checkpoints, which arrived at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) this week, remove two big security bottlenecks that have plagued flyers since before we started removing our shoes. Here’s how they work.

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Instead of having to wait for the person in front of you to sort their belongings and shove their bin into the scanner, the new design has multiple loading stations (typically, three to five) where people can unpack at their own pace without holding up the line. After each person loads their bin, they place it on the conveyor belt and go on their way, even as that one guy still looks for his laptop.

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At each station, passengers grab empty bins from a dispenser below the conveyor belt.  


Kent German/CNET

The TSA calls them “Automated Security Lanes” though that name is a bit of a misnomer. TSA agents still watch over you, but the lanes do automate the return of empty bins to waiting travelers. 

Now, instead of a TSA employee needing to wheel a cart of empty bins to the front of the queue, bins are automatically returned on a second conveyor belt beneath the scanner. Passengers who need an empty bin can continually grab one from below their loading station, almost like a Pez dispenser.

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After passing through the X-ray machine, bags that need an additional inspection are routed onto the conveyer belt in the foreground. Cleared bags are sent the other way for pickup.

Also automated is how bags are pulled aside for inspection. When the scanner identifies such a bag, it will be routed onto a separate belt away from other passengers. RFID tags tell scanners where each bin is in the system and the contents of each bin are both scanned and photographed.

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If a bag is identified as having a gun or something potentially dangerous, it’s shoved into this slot next to the TSA scanner.


Kent German/CNET

If everyone passing through is familiar with the design, security lines can run faster. I loved using automated lanes at Heathrow Airport when I lived in London, so I eagerly welcome them here. 

But while watching passengers use the lanes during a demonstration at SFO Wednesday, it was clear that the design can trip up first-timers. Some passengers hesitated to step up to open loading stations and TSA staff were constantly clearing empty bins and stacking them in the return slot. (TSA has a helpful how-to video.)

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Drop empty bins into this slot at the end of the checkpoint and they’ll sink down to a second conveyer belt for automatic return to the front.


Kent German/CNET

Growing pains aside, the automated bins are long overdue here and I hope they land at more airpots as quickly as possible. SFO is the sixteenth US airport to install them so far. Airports with the system include Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Newark and Seattle. 

One catch for now is that the lanes may only be available at certain terminals. It all depends on who pays for them. At SFO, two lanes are open in Terminal 3, where United Airlines operates domestic flights. United and the airport split the installation cost. 

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