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July 19, 2023

Philly's new airport security wait-time tracker eases travel stress with real-time data

The system, which updates passengers with the current wait time at each terminal, is already showing results

If all goes according to plan, your next Philly air travel experience could be an unexpectedly breezy one. That's because Philadelphia International Airport is well on its way toward completing the rollout of a system that monitors foot traffic through airport security checkpoints and offers real-time estimates of how long passengers can expect to wait in those dreaded security lines.

After experimenting with the technology two years ago in Terminals D and E, the airport recently finished expanding its "queue management system," or QMS, to Terminals A West and A East, Billy Penn reported Tuesday. The system now covers half of PHL's terminals and is expected to be fully completed by next spring.

Passengers traveling through the terminals that are using the technology can get real-time estimates on security wait times by looking at the digital screens displayed in the airport or by visiting the PHL's website

How Philly's airport security wait time tracking system works

The airport's QMS system is built on a platform called LiveReach AI that uses digital cameras and what the vendor's website calls "advanced video intelligence" software to detect and quantify people in a given space – in this case, an airport security line – and understand their collective movements through that space. The software calculates the average number of people present per hour and the amount of time it takes for each person to get from one point to another (or "passenger dwell time" as PHL calls it).

The resulting data is then fed to screens mounted throughout the airport and displayed on the airport's website so passengers know what to expect ahead of their flights. The data is updated every 30 seconds.

"The main goal of the project is to assist passengers and help put them at ease while waiting in the security checkpoint line," PHL Public Affairs Manager Heather Redfren said. And by that measure, the QMS system seems to be working well so far. In a series of surveys, the percentage of Terminal E passengers who said the security line moved "faster than expected" went up 14 points to 72% after the QMS system was installed, while the percentage of people who said it was "slower than expected" dropped by 6 points.

While passenger peace of mind is important – especially at a time when tensions seem to run unusually high among air travel passengers – it's not the only objective of airport QMS systems. Over time, the data generated by these systems can be used to inform security staffing decisions and other aspects of airport operations. In theory, that can lead to greater efficiency and yes, shorter security wait times.

Not quite a 'Philly first:' Learning from other cities

Philly's airport isn't the first to deploy this type of technology. Airports in Houston, Denver and Harrisburg use the same LiveReach AI platform as PHL to power their QMS systems, and the Orlando, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Dallas Fort-Worth international airports use similar platforms. 

Leadership at PHL looked especially closely at the Dallas-Fort Wroth implementation for inspiration while planning its own QMS system, Redfern said. DFW, which started building out its wait time-tracking system in 2018, is the second-busiest airport in the United States.

The technology used for these systems can vary. Though Philly's uses a combination of video and AI software, the one at Orlando International Airport is a bit more complex. First announced in 2016, the MCO wait time tracking system "combines historical and real-time data with algorithms to deliver wait-time predictions by leveraging information collected via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cameras," according to an industry blog post

In contrast to PHL's system, the one at MCO detects and tracks the location of passengers' mobile devices as they move throughout the airport as a way to help analyze crowd size and movements. Orlando's airport recently ranked fifth on a list of U.S. airports with the longest wait times, according to data from luggage storage company Bounce. Philly's airport, on the other hand, did not make the list.