Thursday, October 2, 2014

'Lifehack' airport security lines? Not just yet

A new app designed to tell travelers which airport security checkpoints have the shortest lines has a long way to go before it’s ready to take the active runway.

The app is called “MiFlight.” Developed by Miego Apps, it is designed to “crowdsource security line wait times at all of the world’s major airports,” according to an email sent to TheTravelPro by a public relations representative for the developer.

As with many crowdsourcing applications, MiFlight relies on the sharing of information. Passengers going through security will start the app as they join the line, stop it once they’re through, and share the results. Sounds simple, right? And it is. In principle.

In practice, MiFlight appears to have a significant number of bugs that need to be worked out.

After reading the email, which promised that users would “no longer have to rely on TSAs (reliably incorrect) online wait times,” I downloaded the app to my iPad and called up the information for my home airport, Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA). I immediately spotted some issues.

The way MiFlight depicts SEA is bound to cause considerable confusion. It lists four concourses – A through D – and the airport’s North and South Satellites, implying that each is served by its own security checkpoint. They aren’t. At SEA it doesn’t matter which concourse your flight uses; passengers can reach any gate from any of the five security checkpoints.

Further, the five security checkpoints are identified as Checkpoints 1 through 5, names that are nowhere to be found on the MiFlight app. There are no signs at the airport saying, “This checkpoint serves Concourse A,” so a passenger looking for a checkpoint based on the names in the app will never find it.

Another issue: the MiFlight app does not differentiate between standard security lines, premium lines for First Class and Business Class passengers and TSA’s PreCheck lines. If you’ve ever been assigned PreCheck by your airline or have obtained your Known Traveler Number and use those lines regularly, you know first-hand they can move significantly faster than standard security lines. Accordingly, the app should include a way to designate whether the wait time is for a PreCheck, premium or standard security line.

When I went to the airport during the morning travel rush on Sept. 30, I noticed other problems.

Screen shot taken during my
airport visit
The information provided about wait times was literally weeks or months old – so old that it was absolutely useless. The wait time for one checkpoint was last reported at “10:53, 8/12” while another, shown at left, showed “23:33, 9/18.”

Because SEA is only one airport and may not provide a fair representation of how well the app is being accepted, I checked wait times at San Francisco International (SFO). I also tried to check San Jose’s Norm Minetta Airport (SJC), smack in the heart of Silicon Valley but, inexplicably, the app doesn’t yet list SJC. Checking SFO on Oct. 1 returned information updated on Sept. 14 for one terminal and Sept. 30 for another. Better, but still not current enough to be useful. However, that issue will sort itself out when (and if) enough people start using the app.

Also, there is at least one major airport for which the app is simply pointless. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport (AMS) conducts security screenings at individual gates, one plane at a time, immediately prior to boarding. In that case, there is neither need nor value to reporting or checking on security wait times at AMS. Regardless, the app includes AMS as one of the airports it covers.

Another problem I have with the app is that, to compare times, one has to toggle back and forth between the various checkpoints. It would be a lot more user-friendly if it displayed a table listing an airport's checkpoints with a time next to each, followed by the time of the last report made via the app.

I believe the information would be far more useful if it was displayed in a table like this:

Checkpoint Nearest to Wait time Last reported
No. 1 Concourse A 0 min. 11:30 a.m., 1/1
No. 2 Concourses A & B, tram to S. Satellite 10 min. 07:30 a.m., 9/30
No. 3 Concourses B & C 20 min. 11:03 a.m., 9/30
No. 4 Concourses C & D 15 min. 12:31 p.m., 9/30
No. 5 Concourse D, tram to N. Satellite 10 min. 2:31 p.m., 9/30
Before publishing this post, I sent a detailed email to the developer, pointing out what I had found, suggesting the changes I discussed above, and asking for a response. To date, I’ve heard nothing back.

While they could simply be too busy to respond promptly, there’s another more troubling issue: the three “reviews” of the app on the Apple iTunes Store - which are all glowing reviews - look suspiciously like they were written not by actual users but by the public relations people who sent me the original email. Bad form.

A final cautionary note about using the app. Conditions at airports change very quickly, so while the app might eventually provide useful information about which checkpoint to use once you’ve checked in, I would recommend against using it to gauge when you ought to leave home. That 10-minute wait shown for a particular checkpoint before you leave could easily balloon to 50 minutes by the time you arrive, putting you potentially 40 minutes behind schedule and in danger of missing your flight.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

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