TSA vows to fix airport wait times

The man who runs the federal agency responsible for airport security said Wednesday that the Transportation Security Administration will do whatever it takes to adequately staff checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to reduce wait times.

As the Thanksgiving rush was gearing up, TSA Administrator Edmund "Kip" Hawley paid a surprise visit to Hartsfield-Jackson to get a firsthand look at a checkpoint operation that has been criticized by airport officials and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

"It's our joint job --- the airport, the airlines and TSA --- to do whatever it takes to make the process work cleanly and securely," Hawley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Hawley said he isn't planning any major personnel shake-ups in the Atlanta operation, but he said the agency will take another look at staffing needs at the world's busiest airport.

Hartsfield-Jackson officials complain that the TSA is not fully staffing all checkpoints during the heaviest passenger flows. The TSA contends that since a staffing reassessment last summer, it has properly staffed Hartsfield-Jackson checkpoints.

TSA officials in Atlanta have argued that one reason for long security lines is that the airport often tries to push too many passengers through too few security lanes in too brief a period of time, resulting in logjams.

Hartsfield-Jackson has 28 security lanes, 22 of them located at the main checkpoint near the atrium.

Hawley's five-hour visit coincided with the arrival of additional TSA workers flown in for the hectic holiday travel period to beef up Hartsfield-Jackson's checkpoints. The TSA often brings in reinforcements in anticipation of crowd surges at large airports.

Wait times Wednesday were generally 15 minutes or less, although they soared to 40 minutes for an hour or so, beginning about 8 a.m. as huge numbers of fliers tried to leave Atlanta at the same time. During the last Thanksgiving holiday period, the TSA generally kept security lines at 20 minutes or less, but lines have sometimes neared an hour during nonholiday rushes.

The TSA leader said he thinks the agency has the right number of employees in place in Atlanta and is refining its staffing strategy to minimize waits. The agency has about 850 full-time employees here, out of a total staff of about 950.

Airport officials, however, complain that the TSA has cut 50 full-time positions from its Hartsfield-Jackson operation for 2008. TSA officials say they have increased the critical part-time work force, a flexible group that can be scheduled for rush hours.

"I think we have the numbers right," Hawley said. "One of the key points we've talked about is scheduling."

Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Ben DeCosta flew to Washington last week to complain about security waits and TSA staffing. Isakson, meanwhile, fired off a scathing letter to Hawley, imploring him to fix staffing problems at the airport.

"I spoke with Senator Isakson and told him I would give it my personal attention, especially this week," Hawley said. The TSA leader said he also visited security operations at New York's La Guardia earlier Wednesday.

According to numbers compiled by Hartsfield-Jackson, lines at the main checkpoint exceeded 20 minutes on 438 separate occasions during the past five months. The TSA, however, disputes some of those numbers.

Airport officials admitted Wednesday that the TSA had all security lanes open and fully staffed during Wednesday's 40-minute morning backup. The problem was simply "passenger volume," they said.

In addition to the 22 main security lanes, the airport has six others at the T-gates and the mezzanine.

"Clearly there are some physical constraints here," Hawley said.

DeCosta has said the airport might look at adding two or more lanes to the main checkpoint --- it added four lanes three years ago. But DeCosta said he wants assurances the TSA has solved its staffing problems before new gates are added.