I had an interesting situation at Lisbon airport this week which gave me food for thought.
I was flying on Lufthansa from Lisbon to Munich. The flight left at 6:15am. We checked in online the night before, had Hand Luggage Only and booked an Uber for an extremely early pick up to take us to the airport.
Our Uber receipt shows we were dropped at Libson Terminal 1 at 5:13am, so about one hour before the flight departed. The check-in halls were almost deserted at this hour so we were through to security in less than five minutes.
Our Lufthansa boarding passes said that boarding would commence at 5:45 (so 30 minutes before departure), and that check-in closed 40 minutes before departure, so 5:35.
I’m giving you all these different times just to illustrate what the deadlines were, and how long things actually took to do, in comparison.
Lisbon airport security
We then reached what was possibly the most inefficient security check point I have ever witnessed.
We were in the general security queue, which split into three separate lines of around 200 people each. Despite the security hall having around 15 scanners, only about half of them were open, so two x-ray machines for each line and they each shared a body scanner.
With 25 minutes before boarding was scheduled to start, we should have been fine. But the line moved painfully slowly.
It took me a while to realize why, but as I got closer I was able to make a few observations.
Despite each x-ray belt having three signed places for passengers to put their luggage into trays at once, there was no one at the top of the line directing people (like they do very efficiently at London airports). So dozens of what were likely once-a-year flyers would wait until the security officer standing behind the x-ray belt called out to them to come over to a particular spot at the belt. This meant only one bag would often be move through the belt at a time.
The body scanning was being done by one person only. Whenever the machine beeped, and a passenger had to be taken aside for a pat down, the entire body scanning line would be stopped while this happened.
The security guard would often find coins or other metals during the pat down, and would wander back through the body scanner to find a tray, to then put this on the x-ray belt, all the time stopping anyone else from walking through the scanner.
So there were regularly at least a dozen passengers standing in line waiting to walk through the body scanner (having already put their cabin luggage on the x-ray belt).
Do you ever just watch a situation and see the extremely obvious problems and wonder why no one else notices them? That was me that morning. I had the same experience transiting at Cairo airport last year.
The security line was incredibly inefficient, and it took us around 40 minutes to get through the security line.
Despite arriving over an hour before the flight left, heading straight to the gate, and obviously skipping the lounge, our flight was already on final call when we got to the gate.
The plane was on a remote stand, so we had to wait on a bus until the very last passenger arrived (there were several passengers arriving after us), and thus took off late, and landed late, despite the flight being the first flight of the day for that aircraft.
As you can see from FlightRadar24 below, the delay had a knock-on effect. Every flight that day was delayed (even taking into account padded block times). I would primarily guess this was because of the security times at Lisbon that morning.
Do airlines set impossible check-in times?
Now Lufthansa said on our boarding pass that check-in would close at 5:35am, with boarding to commence 10 minutes later.
Security took 40 minutes, so had we checked a bag just before 5:35 (when check-in closed, 40 minutes before the flight), with the time it would have taken us to get to security, the 40 minutes in the security queue, and the walk/run to the gate there is no way we would have made the flight.
I realize these are the bare minimums, and don’t like to cut it that close myself, but it seems everyone benefits when the minimums are realistic.
So who has responsibility for this?
I imagine this might be different in the U.S., where the majority of airports use the government-run TSA to operate their security checkpoints.
I’ve never worked for an airline, but I imagine there is a general agreement between airline operators about the approximate security wait times at each airport at different times of the day. Airlines need to be able to plan their schedules, and set their check-in times appropriately.
Of course airports would not guarantee these times, because there are so many factors outside of their control, but some general guidance seems appropriate.
I doubt Lufthansa would set a 40 minute bag drop deadline followed by a 30 minute boarding time if they thought it would take each passenger 40 minutes to get through security, given they still want to depart on time.
The security times would have been significantly improved had Lisbon airport security either:
- Opened more security lanes (surely 40 minutes at a European airport is considered excessive — I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes at any London airport before)
- Having an efficient screening process
It was by far the longest I’ve ever waited at outbound security at any European airport, second only to probably Shanghai, for any airport I’ve experienced worldwide. I made the flight with time to spare but could not work out why Lufthansa set a 40 minute check in deadline at an airport where security would also take 40 minutes to pass through.
I would guess people missing their flights at Lisbon is very common, as there were an awful lot of very stressed people in the security line.
Who should take responsibility for passengers missing their flights because of unusually long security lines? The airline who sets the check-in and boarding times, or the airport who takes unnecessarily long to screen passengers?
I’m keen to hear your thoughts!