A Need for Engineering: Why industrial engineers are central to addressing the security challenge

Oct. 8, 2002

Why industrial engineers are central to addressing the security challenge

Several months ago, a Toronto Airport executive was quoted in the New York Times as explaining that airport security is no longer "a police problem – it’s an industrial engineering problem." And this fact has been impressed upon the Transportation Security Administration, currently in the midst of hiring several hundred industrial engineers to staff positions across the U.S.

The TSA’s daunting task of federalizing passenger and baggage screening at 429 airports involves three steps:

• conducting as-is site surveys;

• designing the most effective and efficient checkpoint and baggage screening configurations; and

• deploying the security screening workforce.

In all these functions, industrial engineering techniques such as facilities planning, simulation, human factors, scheduling, and work measurement will serve as the tools for making sound decisions.

Following the September 11 tragedies, engineers were immediately present at disaster sites to assess, stabilize, and analyze – allowing firefighters and rescue workers to proceed with their vital missions.


If there are two words to describe what is coming to ensure enhanced security while restoring public confidence in our air transportation system, they are consistency and repeatability. They apply in the broadest sense to the large transportation system in general, while at the same time in a smaller way to simple passenger checkpoint lanes.

Without design and layout solutions applied equally and consistently to the very large Los Angeles airport and the much smaller Moline airport, the flying public will not develop a sense of an integrated, repetitious process. Industrial engineering is about achieving efficiency and effectiveness within this integrated system.

Rich Hansen is the Transportation Security Adminis-tration’s senior advisor leading the industrial engineering implementation program. He retired from The Boeing Company in 2000 after 35 years, having served as director of industrial engineering for the twin-aisle programs of the commercial airplane group. Hansen is a fellow in the Institute of Industrial Engineers and past president. The Institute of Industrial Engineers is dedicated solely to the support of the industrial engineering profession and individuals involved with improving quality and productivity. For more information about industrial engineering, go to http://www.iienet.org.

Stationed at airports, regional service centers, and field offices throughout the country, industrial engineers will serve as members of aviation operations teams responsible for security and efficiency of airport and passenger processes.

They will address the need for basic and stable processes that are seamless and standard across all airports. Whether a passenger boards a plane in Los Angeles or Fargo, ND, the security screening and baggage processing procedures should be identical. This is how excellence in security and service will be realized.

A Tough Sell

Getting the TSA to recognize the value of applying industrial engineering to its goals was not automatic, however. Although industrial engineers work in every conceivable industry, the image persists of the stopwatch-wielding efficiency expert stalking the manufacturing line.

Chris Billings, manager and industrial engineer at Walt Disney World, was brought into the TSA early on as a senior advisor. Recognized for his logistics expertise, Billings was among a small, handpicked group of professionals tapped to use private-sector expertise to help build the agency from the ground up. (Who better to offer advice about moving large volumes of people through service operations in a customer-friendly manner?)

Billings and his team determined that for all that would be required to make TSA an effective operation – from developing performance metrics to understanding passenger queues – industrial engineering skills would be the key. It was through his persistent explanations that the TSA came to understand how industrial engineers could serve as the link between its status as a startup organization and reaching its lofty goals.

A Tougher Challenge

Critics of the TSA have been loud and not altogether unjustified. But the TSA is a large organization still in its infancy. And Congress has imposed difficult, stretch deadlines and methods upon it.

Let’s not pretend that industrial engineering offers an easy route. The passenger screening rollout project for which Billings is responsible presents plenty of obstacles in and of itself. Passenger screening alone is rife with ergonomic and human factors challenges – fatigue and attention span are fixed constraints that cannot be solved by simply telling workers to sit up and pay attention. And, in some cases, long lines and frustrated passengers may be unavoidable for the foreseeable future as airports make do with the physical constraints of their current facilities.

Industrial engineers are part of the ongoing airport rollouts that integrate the contracted services of contractors, airport authorities, and the TSA against the timelines and methods stipulated by Congress. Their ability to plan, analyze, assess risk, prioritize, integrate, model predictive outcomes, and improve results through best practices will be demonstrated on a daily basis.