Well, I’m not sure how to fix it, but I do have many feelings about what’s wrong. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Great news: America’s favorite Transportation Security Administration, the TSA, has announced a contest to fix its checkpoint lines. The winner gets up to $15,000. Runners-up could get $2,500. And all of us will win the greatest prize of all: never having to deal with the lines in their current form again. Contestants are supposed to “apply a scientific and simulation modeling approach to meet queue design and configuration needs of the dynamic security screening environment with TSA PreCheck.”

One idea springs to mind. Instead of the system we currently have, one improvement would be: literally ANYTHING else.

A few more concrete suggestions:

  • All babies going through security must be stopped and muted.
  • Tell the TSA that D.C. licenses are real licenses from the United States of America. Otherwise they will both hold up the line and embarrass everyone.
  • The way the lines are designed at most airports is specifically set up to give you false hope. They sort you into three or four different sub-lines. “Ah, good,” you think to yourself. “No bottlenecks here! What wonderful efficiency!” Then you notice that all four lines are waiting for the same person, a person whose entire job is to glance at your ID, glance at your face, cock her head to the side slightly and then very slowly sign your ticket with a pen. It does not matter whether you are in four sub-lines or one long line. One long line would feel longer, I guess, but the outcome is the same, and we should stop pretending otherwise.

There are other problems.

Right now the system is set up in such a way that on days when you are at the airport early with plenty of time to spare, there is no line, but when you have squeaked in just one or two minutes before the plane is due to board, the line is both extremely long and incredibly slow.

They have also cleverly arranged it so that the people in the line when you are in a great hurry are the most relaxed humans you have ever seen in your life. They don’t even notice when the line should be moving. They are too busy smiling and gazing placidly around them to take in all the wonderful airport sights. It is almost as if they had never seen an airport before. You sit there, trying to will the line to move forward faster using your mind, causing you to perspire suspiciously from the temples, and they are just lollygagging, talking about what a surprise ending that moving walkway had. It is almost as if they did not have a plane to catch at all.

Not only that, but they have never gotten their bags ready to put through the scanner. When they do arrive at the scanner, this seems to take them completely by surprise. They have to unpack everything, find their laptops, then repack everything. Then they try to go through the machine with their shoes on. You sit there stewing. You try to dart through the machine before they can go, but this is the one moment when they are too quick for you.

Meanwhile, they are calling your name over the speaker system for a third time.

Similarly, the later you are, the more likely it is that you have left a value-sized tube of toothpaste in your suitcase that you will not discover until you are trying to zip the bag back up and sprint toward the gate with it. “Hold on just a second there, ma’am,” the TSA agent will say, adding ma’am-ery to injury (you knew you looked a bit frazzled, but you didn’t think you were quite in ma’am territory yet), and he will have to go through your bag right there and then. You will be returning from a wedding where they gave out bath salts as a party favor and he will discover these, too. “What are these?” he will ask.

“They’re a party favor,” you will say. You keep nervously looking toward the gate, where you can hear your name being called. You can tell he has misread this gesture and so you add, “I know they look like anthrax, but they definitely aren’t,” which does little to help your case. “Look,” you say, digging in, “I obviously would not say that if they were anthrax, because that would be a really idiotic way of averting suspicion.”

He will squint at them.

“They’re bath salts,” you will add. “Not the drug, though. Just the – bath – salt.”

At this point, his suspicions will be fully aroused (there has to be another way of phrasing this), and he will have to test your salts with a special blue chemical that he has on hand expressly for this purpose. Meanwhile, your plane will have taken off and you will spend the next three hours sitting at the gate grumbling to yourself. At the end of this ordeal, you will wind up on several watch-lists because everyone around you agreed that your behavior seemed Highly Suspicious, so they Saw Something and Said Something

There has to be some way of avoiding this. I think it has to do with the line design. My $15,000 suggestion is that they should put a sign at the beginning of the line saying that if you do not intend to take this line-standing seriously, you should stand right so that the rest of us can walk left. We have planes to catch. Or they could just have a separate line for Me and for People Who Aren’t Me. That would work, too.

Sure, this isn’t scientific, as the TSA wanted. But if I’ve learned anything from watching debates on cable news, it is that you don’t need science when you have an anecdote or two on your side. Hand over the money.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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