Cleaning up the Automatic Passport Control System

Air travelers queue at border passport control.

Upon my arrival at Dulles International Airport, my escort met me at the gate with the wheelchair. As we approached the passport control checkpoint, the escort assured me that it wouldn’t take long, due to the machines that scan the passport. Oops! I had informed my father to arrive one hour after my plane landed; more lines with international flights. I need not have fretted, as the machines had some problems.

Problem? An engineer’s ears perk up—something to solve. The engineer’s mind becomes engaged. One could say this engagement is a curse as much as it is a blessing. Engineers have the habit of providing unwanted advice when they see an issue that could be resolved if they just changed “this ‘n that.” I must admit, I fall prey to this habit.

The machine asks for your language preference–mine is English. My escort placed the passport on the clear plate, pressing down quite firmly. Machine attempts to scan and responds, “unable to scan.” Try it again, same response. My escort states this happens a lot and we just need to try another machine. Two attempts again, and no paper to show a successfully-scanned passport. The machines fail to impress me with their quickness, as they have utterly failed to perform a simple scan. Fortunately, people remain as the backup. Workers in yellow vests point us toward the passport control people with a “Let them know you couldn’t get a scan.” As we wait, I pepper my escort with questions.

“You say this happens a lot?”–he nods.

“Does anyone clean the machines?”–he states he hasn’t seen anyone cleaning them.

“Are the machines ever taken down for preventive maintenance?”–he was not aware.

“The machines should be able to put themselves out of commission if they fail to scan for 20 attempts.” I continue, “This way no one goes to a machine that is down and wastes their time.”

stockfresh_1679039_us-passport_sizexsMy engineering mind persists with questions and speculations. How many failed scans indicate an abnormal problem? Perhaps someone had mustard on their passport. Is the clear plate glass or plastic, as that would inform what kind of cleaning fluid to use? How long has this system been up–over a year? Well, whatever the reason, the system’s performance is sub-optimal. I smile at my escort and tell him “You can take these ideas and submit them, you can take all the credit.”

We roll up to the staffed passport control. I explain to the agent behind the counter why I’m here without proof of a successful scan. Then I say something about the poor system-I’m an engineer, this should be fixed. He smiles because he lives with it every day, then he asks, how did I sprain my left knee. That’s a story for another day.

Have a Productive Day,

Anne Meixner

Dear Reader, what memory or question does this piece spark in you? Have you stood too long in line due to a machine misbehaving? Please share your comments or stories below. You, too, can write for The Engineers’ Daughter- See Contribute for more information.

Additional Reading

In my statement about 20 failed scans I was thinking about what would be a normal number of retries as well.  In process control engineering there is a statistical metric called process control index.

Orlando airport had the first installation of the Automatic Passport Control machines in 2014.

I’m not the only one who has experienced a problem with the machines, though this person’s problem was different.

Read this description of the APC process– as I didn’t get past the first step.

While I was in the line I noticed that there’s Mobile Passport App advertised.  Perhaps I could totally skip these machines next time.

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