Six minutes to clear security screening at George Best Belfast City Airport?

CLAIM: Since October 2018, George Best Belfast City Airport has repeated its claim that passengers pass through the security search area in an average of six minutes.

CONCLUSION: UNSUBSTANTIATED. As a private company with no regulatory requirement to share detailed information, the airport chooses not to reveal detailed data that would allow the average calculation to be substantiated over time. As a result, we can neither prove nor disprove the accuracy of the six-minute claim.

In a press release on 4 October 2018 announcing the opening of their renovated passenger security search area, George Best Belfast City Airport (GBBCA) claimed that the changes “has slashed average passenger processing time to only 6 minutes”. This claim was repeated on Facebook. Operations director Mark Beattie was quoted: “Over the past number of weeks, we’ve been monitoring passenger flows. We’re confident 6 minutes is the average time it should take to pass through the new security system.”

FactCheckNI note that this claim has been repeated in press reports (Insider Media; Irish News; Belfast Live) a number of times since October 2018 (1) (2) (3), most recently in a Belfast Telegraph article discussing flight departure punctuality.

GBBCA replied to our inquiry about the statistic:

“Duty Managers, separate to security process, routinely pick out passengers when they arrive at security and time how long it takes to complete the process. CCTV can also be used for this process. The samples are taken daily on different days of the week and at different times of the day with the average time still being 6 minutes.”

GBBCA said that they were “unable to share this information as it could be used by other airports”, adding that “as airports are generally private companies, they don’t share this data and there is no requirement to do so”.

Similarly, while “the average processing time has reduced quite significantly … the previous times weren’t ever in the public domain” and will not be shared.

What is being measured?

There is no standard that defines how to measure the security queue at an airport. There is variation across the island of Ireland. From conversations with GBBCA, we understand that they measure from the point a passenger enters the security area and joins the back of the queue until the point that they leave the security area with their shoes back on and carrying their hand baggage to go up the escalator to ‘relax and shop’.

Under the 2014 Determination on Maximum Level of Airport Charges at Dublin Airport, the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR) imposes financial penalties on the airport operators if 100% of passengers do not pass through airport security within 30 minutes. This is just one of 12 targets that are monitored. The customer journey is defined as from the point “the passenger joins the end of the queue (which may or may not be inside the security queue area)” to the point that “the passenger reaches the walk through metal detector”. This is not directly comparable with the GBBCA-measured customer journey.

How are queues measured?

Queues seem to be part of modern life, with post offices, bars, toilets, ticket offices, theme parks all attracting lines of people waiting for a scarce resource to become available. FactCheckNI’s research shows that some airports use sophisticated facial recognition to monitor how long passengers wait to pass through security.

GBBCA use visual methods, including CCTV, to sample passengers as they join the queue and follow them through to the point they leave the security area.

Dublin Airport uses a commercial automated system that tracks the progress of passenger’s electronic equipment (usually phones or tablets) through the security area by detecting unique wi-fi and Bluetooth signatures. Their mobile app includes a real time indication of security queueing times, a rolling average of “all the passengers who have completed the security screening queuing in the previous 15 minutes”.

Is six minutes good?

The City of Derry Airport is a small regional airport. Its spokesperson told FactCheckNI that “passengers are consistently processed through security in less than ten minutes”. (They measure “from the moment a passenger enters the security area until they exit”.)

A spokesperson for Dublin Airport told us that the year-to-date average for security processing at Dublin Terminal 1 is 7.09 minutes, while the Terminal 2 average is 8.34 minutes, based on measuring passengers between 03:34 and 23:59.

Data on the security queue times at Dublin Airport is published by the CAR, in its quarterly issue of Quality of Service. For example, a published graph shows that the daily maximum for the first three months of 2019 varied between eight minutes and 28 minutes:

Exact comparisons are difficult due to the differing sampling/measurement techniques and the inconsistent inclusion/exclusion of aspects of the security screening process as not every airport includes the time taken for some bags to be hand checked, and the time to put your belt and shoes back on and zip up your bags.

If the six-minute claim is accurate for the time taken to be security screened at George Best Belfast City Airport, this compares well with Dublin Airport as well as London Gatwick (perceived to be the fastest of the UK’s largest five airports).

What would FactCheckNI need to deem to substantiate the claim?

To be a robust claim that FactCheckNI — or any member of the public — could substantiate, we would expect to see evidence of the queue time being measured daily or weekly over a sustained period, to allow the average over time to be computed. We might also want reassurance about the randomness of the sampling process that is employed at GBBCA.

In our attempt to set this claim in context, FactCheckNI contacted Belfast International Airport but they were unable to provide specific information by the time of publication. We will update the claim if relevant information is received.

Image: Photo by Skitterphoto used by license CC0.


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