Lack of screeners results in BWI delays

To ease problem, 70 more security staffers expected

August 02, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Air travelers met with long lines and flight delays at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday after dozens of security staffers receiving on-job training there left this week for posts in other cities, airline officials said.

Southwest Airlines, which carries about 45 percent of the passengers using BWI, had to delay seven flights for up to 15 minutes yesterday morning while passengers waited to get through security. American Airlines delayed at least three flights for less than five minutes and US Airways, the airport's second-biggest carrier, held six flights for an average of less than five minutes.

The delays came as lawmakers are debating whether to extend the Transportation Security Administration's Nov. 19 deadline for deploying federal passenger screeners at airports nationwide. Some question whether the agency can hire and train tens of thousands of screeners in time.

"The TSA has suffered some severe staffing problems and we have experienced backups the last two days at our checkpoint, primarily in the mornings," said Michael Miller, Southwest's BWI station manager. " ... We turn planes around in 20 minutes, and if we're holding them for 15 minutes past the departure time, it hurts our operation."

TSA officials said they are planning to immediately field an additional 70 screeners at BWI in an effort to alleviate congestion, and airline officials say they don't expect further problems.

Airport and airline officials said the difficulties started earlier in the week, when as many as a "few hundred" TSA staffers left BWI to man security checkpoints at other airports. A BWI spokeswoman said the extra screeners had been training at BWI, which in April became the first airport in the nation to be crewed with federal passenger screeners.

The TSA announced Tuesday that it was expanding its reach by deploying federal screeners at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Fla.; Port Columbus International Airport in Columbus, Ohio; and Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn.

TSA officials declined to comment on whether it had moved screeners from BWI to those airports.

"TSA regrets the frustration many travelers experienced this week at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport," the agency said in a statement. "Since early this year, we have worked hard with the airport, the airlines and our other key stakeholders at BWI to ensure minimal inconvenience to passengers."

BWI has been dogged by concerns about long lines and delays since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The state agency that operates BWI has been working closely with the TSA to expand the number of passenger security checkpoints and work out kinks in the system in hopes of silencing the critics.

"Ultimately, it's our job to make sure their experience is not troublesome," said Melanie Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Aviation Administration. "All upper management will be down there helping to get people through."

Stephen Van Beek, senior vice president for policy at Airports Council International, said the TSA has been mostly successful in working with airports to avoid delays as it takes over passenger screening. The airport trade group said the greater concern is whether the agency will be able to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to deploy baggage screening equipment in all 429 airports.

"I think they have a Herculean task and I think they've pursued the passenger checkpoint issue pretty well," he said.

But aviation experts say even delays of five minutes add up - especially for an industry that is still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Minor disruptions in airline schedules can ripple throughout the day and eat into already-thin profit margins.

For example, an airplane might leave BWI for a city in Florida, then continue to Atlanta or Chicago later in the day. A five- to 15-minute delay in the morning can set that plane back all day, said Morten Beyer, an Arlington, Va., aviation consultant.

"There's certainly a rising tide of frustration among the passengers," Beyer said. "There are undoubtedly more and more people avoiding flying, particularly on short-haul flights."

Beyer noted recent statistics showing that short-haul flying - common among East Coast cities - is down as much as 40 percent as more passengers drive or take trains in order to avoid airport congestion.

But David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said passengers aren't likely to punish BWI for its long lines this week.

"People may not like the situation or delays, but these are the cheapest fares they are going to get in most cases," said Stempler, referring to the low-fare airlines that frequent BWI.

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