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Home | News | UTEP Civil Engineering Professor, Student Researchers Help Improve Airport Checkpoints
Kelvin Cheu, Ph.D., center, professor of civil engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso, stands in the main concourse of El Paso International Airport with his undergraduate student researchers, Sarah Ponce de Leon, left, and Emiliano Ruiz. Cheu has worked for the last six months to improve airport checkpoints as the lead investigator of an operations research and systems analysis project conducted by the Center for Accelerating Operational Efficiency (CAOE) at Arizona State University, a DHS Center of Excellence. The work is being conducted as part of a $3.85 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate. The amount represents the first-year value of a 10-year award. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

UTEP Civil Engineering Professor, Student Researchers Help Improve Airport Checkpoints

Ruey (Kelvin) Cheu, Ph.D., sees opportunity where others might see encumbrance. The professor in the Department of Civil Engineering is actively working to improve airport checkpoints as the lead investigator of an operations research and systems analysis project conducted by the Center for Accelerating Operational Efficiency (CAOE) at Arizona State University, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence.

The professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso knows the end of the spring semester heralds the arrival of summer, a time that traditionally entails travel for students who pursue leisure, internships or research experiences. Students are not alone in these excursions.

The period between academic years is perennially one of the busiest times for airports. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported a record-breaking summer travel season in 2018 during which the agency screened more than 253 million travelers, a 6% increase compared with the previous year.

This year figures to see similar numbers. Along with that come the snarls at TSA checkpoints where travelers wade through winding lines upwards of 30 minutes so transportation security officers (TSOs) can screen them as part of the agency’s safety measures.

Cheu is actively working to improve airport checkpoints as the lead investigator of an operations research and systems analysis project conducted by the Center for Accelerating Operational Efficiency (CAOE) at Arizona State University, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence.

The work is being conducted as part of a $3.85 million grant from the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. The amount represents the first-year value of a 10-year award.

“Everybody knows TSA is responsible for checking all air passengers and luggage at the airports,” Cheu said. “This creates some inconvenience for the travelers. What we are trying to do with this project is minimize the waiting time and make the inspection process as efficient as possible.”

To accomplish that, Cheu has worked for the last six months with students from UTEP and Arizona State to create simulation models of terminals located inside Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.

The team bases its simulations on real-world DHS data to help researchers identify the optimum number of TSOs based on the number of travelers at a given checkpoint at a given time of day. These simulations were validated by a team of capstone students at ASU who worked alongside TSOs to validate the models.

The data helps lines flow more quickly, allocates limited TSA resources efficiently, and maintains the safety of passengers and crew members.

“The current challenges faced by DHS include day-to-day operations, split-second decision making and the allocation of scarce resources,” said Emiliano Ruiz, a senior civil engineering major. “This is my first research experience as an undergrad student working for the CAOE. Through operations research and systems analysis, we are looking at improving the security measures at security screening points at the airports. In order to improve the efficiency and security at airport security screening points, we are developing a simulation model to decrease the average waiting time of passengers at the airports.”

Working on the project has provided an opportunity to hone skills and become immersed in a project that could potentially have a wide impact, said Sarah Ponce de Leon, a senior civil engineering major who has been working with Cheu since February.

“As a student, sometimes we feel pretty small in the big picture of things,” said Ponce de Leon, who graduates in May 2019. “But with this project, we are working on something that, in the future, I can actually go to an airport and see that it is working, that the simulation we did actually helped overcome a problem that is actually there at the airports. I will feel very rewarded and feel that I can keep doing more as a student and as a professional one day.”

The CAOE project has also been an enriching experience for Matthew Vechione, a UTEP doctoral student who is a faculty member at The University of Texas at Tyler. Vechione said this project will ease stress on both travelers and the TSA.

“TSA is stretched thin with limited staff and resources,” Vechione said. “We are using simulation-based tools to help ease the process and optimize TSA’s limited resources and staff, without compromising security. This project is my first exposure to a real-world operations research problem, a problem which I have experienced when I have traveled. My hope is that, in the future, we can provide a successful tool that DHS and TSA can effectively use, and I can see the benefits as a traveler.”

Cheu added that working with CAOE has offered him and his student researchers access to advanced analytical tools and technologies that have enabled them to enhance planning, information sharing and real-time decision-making in homeland security operations.

That access, he said, is a testament to the caliber of work conducted by UTEP en route to its recent R1 designation as a top tier research university by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

“Our faculty has been doing very strong work for many years. That’s why we were invited by ASU to join other consortium members as part of the CAOE,” Cheu said. “R1 status is not going to change the way we do research. We will continue to do good quality research and develop capable students. What has changed is expectation. Everyone knows we are R1. So, there will be more exposure, more proposals. Partners will expect more from us.

“With this project, specifically, we will be expected to improve the security of our country. In this case, it’s to make the TSA operations at our airport more efficient. We are able to detect, track and minimize inconvenience to travelers. But also, we help TSA make more efficient use of its resources and budget to maximize the safety of our country.”

Author: Pablo Villa – UTEP Communications

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