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Navigating TSA security line a lot like herding cats

Here's a puzzle security/efficiency gurus at Portland airport are still working out. Not surprisingly, PDX has cameras everywhere. So down in the basement command center, Transportation Security Administration employees can tell which security lines are growing and how long it will take to get people through.

There are two security lines: one for gates A, B and C, the other for gates D and E. There also is a connecting walkway after security, so passengers can choose either line. When the command center sees one line is significantly longer than the other, customer service representatives are dispatched to tell travelers at the end of the line that they'd get past security much quicker if they moved to the other line and walked back to their gate. The travelers almost never do.

“Once they get in line, people are like cement,” says Mike Irwin, security director for TSA at PDX.

That's predictable, says University of Portland economist Mark Meckler. We're all hardwired a little to embrace the familiar, explaining what is often referred to as the Endowment Effect.

“Efficiency really matters, but only to a point,” Meckler says. “People feel like, 'I've been through this before, that line may be faster, but I still know I'm going to get through in plenty of time, I don't need the added efficiency.' ”

So TSA has figured out they have to influence passengers after they've entered the airport but before they have chosen a security line. In fact, Irwin says they've learned they have to intercept passengers as they come around what he calls “the throat” of the terminal and decide to turn right or left. But he wants everyone to know those TSA representatives are basing their advice on real data — if they tell you the other line is going to get you to your gate faster, you might want to listen to them.