WASHINGTON -- Increased air traffic and a shortage of security screeners could combine to cause a "baggage meltdown" this summer for passengers, one of Congress' leading aviation experts charged Thursday.
The rate of lost or mishandled baggage rose 23% from 2004 to 2005 as carriers such as US Airways struggled with staff shortages and financial difficulties. The problem was exacerbated by occasional security bottlenecks, said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee.
This year, Mica said, "They have fewer personnel to deal with even more baggage." He predicted one of the worst summers in history for baggage problems.
Airport managers are worried enough about staff shortages that some have hired laborers to help Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners with non-security jobs, such as loading bags on bomb-detection machines, said Stephen Van Beek, policy director of the Airports Council International.
He said TSA and airline staffing are tight, which makes delays in baggage handling more likely during periods of peak demand.
"Addressing that peak demand requires full staffing by airlines and TSA to process the bags. ... It's a concern of airports this summer," Van Beek said.
The TSA reported that its workforce had a 24% turnover rate and that 10% of workers are on workers' compensation.
Airline and TSA officials, however, disputed Mica at a hearing on the subject Wednesday.
The TSA is planning to hire additional part-time screeners, which will allow it to increase staffing during peak hours, said Charlotte Bryan, the TSA's acting assistant administrator.
The airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are working to minimize flight delays, which lead to most lost bags, said John Meenan, executive vice president of the Air Transport Association.
Meenan said he doesn't think the problem will worsen over the summer. The rate of lost bags has declined slightly through March this year, according to Department of Transportation data.
"We work hard to stay on top of these issues, and we don't see a meltdown coming," Meenan said.
About 3.6 million bags were mishandled last year, according to Department of Transportation data. Less than 1% of passengers experience baggage problems. Last year there were 6.04 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, up from 4.91 per 1,000 in 2004.
Last year's figures were slightly above historic averages. The numbers have tended to increase as flights fill up or as carriers struggle financially.
Mica said the TSA ought to speed up the screening process by integrating explosive-detection machines into the inner workings of airport baggage-handling systems. Few airports have the system now.
He said he is also concerned that 87 TSA baggage screeners have been arrested for theft. Bryan defended the agency. "TSA has an excellent track record when it comes to appropriately handling all forms of passenger property, including checked baggage."
News stories provided by third parties are not edited by "Site Publication" staff. For suggestions and comments, please click the Contact link at the bottom of this page.