DIA gears up to head off delays; Airport adding 15 screeners, 2 lanes for holiday week

Fifteen Transportation Security Administration screeners will be added at Denver International Airport this week to handle the Thanksgiving rush, airport officials announced Sunday.

In addition, two new security screening lanes have been opened on the A Concourse bridge in an effort to thwart delays that have become synonymous with holiday travel.

The airport's snow removal capacity also has been increased after last season's shutdown just before Christmas, airport manager Turner West said.

And, should those measures fail to put a dent in aggravatingly long lines and mounting passenger tension, more musicians will be on hand to help soothe tempers.

"The whole country seems to be getting more and more negative about air travel," West said, in explaining the need for such assurances.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters was in Denver on Sunday to tour the airport and FAA facilities, and discuss recent airline accountability measures announced by President Bush.

Peters, who first hobnobbed with airport guests, said DIA is not only the nation's fifth-busiest airport but "by far the most striking." Peters then met with air traffic controllers and said she was assured of aggressive plans to keep air traffic moving smoothly.

Her visit comes on the heels of a federal report that found that DIA had the longest security wait times during peak travel periods of all large airports in the most recent fiscal year.

"The holidays should be a time of cheer, not a time of long lines, long delays and lost baggage," she said.

Peters said airlines will be able to take advantage of unused airspace usually reserved for the military along the Eastern seaboard under an agreement announced last week. She said airport managers also will have more flexibility on overtime staffing.

Peters noted that three-quarters of the severe delays happen in the New York City area, creating a ripple effect nationwide. Officials are working with airlines now to curb delays there by using certain runways simultaneously at Newark and JFK, she said.

Peters also touted a new Bush proposal that would double compensation for passengers involuntarily bumped from flights when airlines overbook.

The administration is calling for compensation to be raised from $200 to $400 when the passenger can be booked on a new flight in under two hours, and from $400 to $800 for longer delays.

The administration also is proposing new ways to record and post flight delay information and asking that carriers adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays that include food, water, lavatory facilities and medical attention.

Peters did not address DIA's request for 58 additional TSA security screeners. DIA's plea was backed up by the state's congressional delegation.

"This may be good for the holidays," Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette's spokesman Chris Arend said Sunday. "But we think there should be more longer-term solutions."

David Williams, his wife and son, of Boulder, were en route to Hilton Head, S.C., Sunday - a day they strategically chose to both avoid delays and save money on their tickets.

They were pleasantly surprised by Sunday morning's relatively empty airport.

"I've been here when the line's out to here," said Williams, 51, motioning way beyond the designated security checkpoint lines. "We've been in the security lines for an hour-plus. This is actually sort of amazing."