TSA site lets travelers check wait time

The Transportation Security Administration didn’t wait around when it decided to put security checkpoint length-of-wait information online.

“The decision was to turn it around in a month’s time,” said Kevin Lawson, chief architect in the agency’s CIO office.

The wait time site, at waittime.tsa.dhs.gov, went live Aug. 10, just a few days past the 30-day deadline. It uses an on-demand application delivery service from Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., which moves the computing onto Akamai’s distributed worldwide infrastructure.

“The EdgeComputing service lets us do Java at the edge,” Lawson said. “We didn’t have to purchase any new hardware, software or circuits.”

Travelers can see the average wait for any hour of the day at each of 740 security checkpoints in 450 commercial airports across the country.

Lawson called it the agency’s first e-government initiative. When the administration created TSA in 2002, “we had to focus on standing our operations up internally,” he said.

As the agency matures, the focus is slowly shifting outward to customer service. He called the length-of-wait service “a good first example.”

Wonderful world of Disney

TSA had been gathering airport wait time data sporadically until this summer, when collection expanded to the entire day. Each hour, one passenger entering the checkpoint is handed a time-stamped card. The passenger turns in the card at the exit, recording the time spent.

The agency copied that idea from the Walt Disney Co. theme parks, TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O’Sullivan said.

TSA originally used the data to allocate internal resources and personnel, but now it goes to the on-demand application server program, which is being rolled out in three phases.

“The first app we knocked out in about a week,” Lawson said, showing static data online in Adobe Portable Document Format. The second and current iteration lets users choose an airport, day of week and time of day to see a rolling 28-day average of the likely wait times. At the end of each shift, airports enter the length-of-wait data into local databases. Once a night, all the data uploads to TSA in Extensible Markup Language.

“At night we do an upload to the Akamai infrastructure,” Lawson said. “They purge the data from the night before.”

Akamai introduced the EdgeComputing service last year as a complement to its flagship EdgeSuite service, which delivers content from a global network of 14,000 servers.

EdgeComputing uses the JEE Java extension language on Akamai servers, not the customers’ servers, to process the information requests.

The TSA application is straightforward, said Keith E. Johnson, public-sector vice president of Akamai. “It’s not a really intensive application, and it gives TSA the flexibility of not having to buy additional equipment.”

Akamai already was delivering content for Homeland Security Department sites, and TSA added the EdgeComputing service under that existing contract. Because the service does not reside on DHS’ network, TSA has no security and intrusion worries.

“We knew we weren’t going to be able to buy hardware, do the configuration and set it up for Internet scale in 30 days,” Lawson said. But the final phase of the project still is in the conceptual stage.

Wait time at checkpoints is only one aspect of airport delays. TSA wants to work with airports, airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide on-demand data about everything from parking to weather delays.

“We don’t have the capacity to do real-time information, but we can do high-level reports,” Lawson said.

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