BWI reduces security tie-ups

Lines of less than 10 minutes found at airport terminals

June 20, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

A month into the busy summer travel season, officials at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport say security lines shouldn't be a common problem for most vacationers and business travelers.

Traffic in the first three month of this year at BWI was up 3.5 percent over last year, and for the most part, airport officials say the lines are less than 10 minutes.

"It's not been an issue here in the near term," said Jonathan Dean, a BWI spokesman. "Four or five years ago, yes, it was an issue here and nationwide. We got better and certainly the new Southwest terminal did provide some extra elbow room."

The Southwest terminal, open just over a year, has two large banks of security lanes - 11 in all - that have eased the airport's burden significantly. It was designed and built after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to incorporate the security measures taken at the nation's 450 airports. Southwest is BWI's dominant airline and handled just under half the 20 million annual travelers through the airport last year.

While airport and government officials say many of the nation's airports can handle most of the loads most of the time, there are peak periods when the lines grow frustratingly long, they acknowledge.

Wait times remain inconsistent among airports and even within airports depending on the time of day and the terminal.

Most terminals were built before the 2001 terrorist attacks, were never meant for such close scrutiny of passengers and don't have room for more security lanes.

Dean said additional security lines have been added in other airport terminals, and BWI in recent weeks began handing out bags to passengers during busy times so they can begin collecting wallets, coats, change and other items ahead of the X-ray machines. The first weekend they were used was Memorial Day.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the 43,000 federal screeners, including hundreds at BWI, also recently began recently shifting the responsibility for hiring screeners to local managers to keep staffing up. In April, BWI was among the first airports to shift hiring.

Nationwide, turnover among screeners, now called transportation security agents, is lower than when airlines managed them, but at more than 20 percent a year, remains a problem for the agency.

TSA recently advertised for 100 part-timers at BWI, who will be placed in terminals at busy times.

The agency's goal is wait times of 10 minutes or less. It tracks flow by handing a random passenger at the back of each line a card with the time stamped on it each hour, and logs when that passenger makes it to the front.

Specific numbers for BWI and its rivals were not available yesterday from TSA. Some observers say averages don't always give a full picture anyway.

"The issue continues to really be during peak periods when business travelers show up," said Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group.

"I dropped my wife off at the Philadelphia airport today at 8 a.m. and you could look up and see the line stretched to the parking lot," he said. "That's what averages obscure."

He said the waits - or not knowing what the wait will be -are costing people valuable time because they always have to go to the airport early.

Mitchell supported a "Registered Traveler" program that TSA had planned to begin today but has said will be delayed. The program is supposed to usher travelers through security faster in exchange for personal information and maybe a fingerprint submitted in advance. Privacy advocates and travel groups who believe TSA should speed the process for everyone have been critical of the plan.

BWI's Dean has said the airport officials aren't sure the program would make the process more efficient and does not plan to participate at the start.

Passengers interviewed yesterday largely were pleased with their experience at the airport.

"It [the new Southwest terminal] was a big help," said Carole Morris-Shortle, a Baltimore resident and Southwest frequent flyer.

Morris-Shortle, a social worker, said she flies Southwest three or four times a year. The lines in the past year have been significantly "smoother and faster," she said.

Other passengers said the whole airport is doing pretty well.

"Generally, I don't think the wait's been bad," said Carol Squibb of Gambrills.

Squibb said she flies out of BWI once a year. She said she has a lot of family, who also mostly fly from BWI. Despite a ticket mix-up yesterday, "everything else is pretty good," she said.

"It's a very efficient airport," added Cindy Vickery, a West Palm Beach, Fla., retiree.

Darrin Kayser, a spokesman for TSA, said the agency doesn't consider BWI a problem. He credited the $264 million Southwest terminal, for which TSA contributed $10 million, with improving wait times. The TSA funds were used to build an in-line baggage system than sends checked luggage along one automated conveyor belt from check-in, through security and to the ramp where it's put on the plane.

"There's a lot of difference in the way they are laid out and the traffic flows," Kayser said of the nation's airports. "There are big fluctuations, even within airports. ... It's never going to be a static industry and different airports are always going to have different needs. Our job is to make sure we react to those needs and target resources."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tyeesha Dixon contributed to this article.

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