Top aviation official warns of longer lines at airports

Experts say more traffic, less screeners to blame

November 06, 2003|By Thomas Frank | Thomas Frank,NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - A top federal aviation official warned yesterday of longer lines at airports this holiday season, saying there will be more passengers.

Industry experts agreed that lines could be longer but note a reduction in the number of security screeners at passenger checkpoints.

Stephen J. McHale, the Transportation Security Administration's deputy administrator, told a Senate hearing he was "concerned about increasing passenger flow this holiday season. We could see longer lines this year than last year at airports."

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said in an interview, "There's a big concern they're not going to have enough people to man the checkpoints for the holidays."

The TSA has cut its screening work force from 55,600 in March to 48,000 to save money. Congress has required the number hit 45,000 by October of next year.

"Thanksgiving and Christmas are the first major holidays the airports are going to go through with the reduced manpower," said Ian Redhead, vice president of airport facilities and services at the Airports Council International, which represents airports.

At the same time, the transport association, which represents 14 major domestic airlines, is seeing a slight increase in pas- sengers for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings sharply reduced air traffic.

"Our internal data suggest that in the last several weeks, since late September, the numbers are trending upward," said association economist John Heimlich. "It's not immense, but it's trending upward."

Nationally, federal statistics show the number of passengers was down by 0.6 percent in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in last year.

"During the summer, we had lines at some airports because so many people are traveling," TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said yesterday morning. The TSA backed off a statement that passenger traffic was up 25 percent this summer, and said only that officials were seeing increases at some airports.

The TSA wants passengers to help expedite lines by not bringing metal materials or barred items such as scissors and pocket knives through metal detectors.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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