WASHINGTON - The federal government has delivered only a portion of the explosives-detection machines that McCarran International Airport was counting on as it brings an automated baggage screening system online, according to officials in Las Vegas and in Congress.
With approval and partial funding from the Transportation Security Administration two years ago, the airport designed a $125 million system of conveyer belts to transport bags through minivan-size screening machines stationed near the A and B concourses.
The aim was to clear space on the concourse floor where the bulky equipment was employed, eliminate major backups at screening checkpoints and save money by eliminating workers who haul bags into the machinery.
When fully deployed, the conveyers would deliver baggage into 42 of the detection machines placed in nodes servicing individual airlines. McCarran is the second-busiest airport in the country as measured by the number of passengers who go through security. Most also carry on luggage.
But Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker said integration of the screening machinery has stalled at 29. He said airport managers were notified of TSA performance studies that concluded the machines could inspect bags at rates faster than originally projected.
Walker said Tuesday that McCarran officials question how the performance assessments were conducted, and fear problems if the studies are wrong and it affects baggage flow from major carriers.
A shortage could lead to bottlenecks and delays in processing travelers at peak times this summer when Southwest Airlines is expected to add flights, and in the fall when a node serving Northwest Airlines, United Airlines and America West becomes operational, Walker said.
"Potentially at the very, very peak times, then you would have to get into manual mode," Walker said, by employing concourse equipment.
McCarran brought the north node online in June, serving Alaska Airlines and several other small carriers. While designed for three screening machines, it is operating with two "and is handling the volume OK," Walker said.
But the test will come in June, when a south baggage node serving Southwest Airlines is scheduled to come online, Walker said. Southwest is McCarran's busiest carrier with more than 200 daily flights.
"We need six (machines), and we have five," Walker said. "There is no way we can handle the number. We are absolutely concerned we will have serious issues. Even with a sixth machine we would be looking to expand.
"We built the facility, the space is there, the bag runs just end up going to nowhere."
McCarran officials complained to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. At a Senate Commerce hearing Tuesday, Ensign pressed TSA Director Kip Hawley.
The airport "has built out to have 42 machines and now they have only 29," Ensign said. "They have these 13 conveyer belts sitting there empty."
Hawley said TSA recently agreed to add three machines to Las Vegas.
Walker said the additional machines are versions now on the concourse that will be upgraded and moved into the conveyer system.
"That will take care of us for the immediate problem but that just gets us past what we have now," Walker said. "We are going to need an additional four soon after that and then another six."
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said Wednesday the agency "believes the additional three machines will address the needs of the airport while also demonstrating a responsiveness to the airport.
"As always, once installation is complete we will evaluate the situation and should changes be warranted we will address those separately," Melendez said
Ensign said: "We will find out if these three will meet McCarran's needs. If they do, it's OK but if they don't we have to push to make sure they are getting the resources they need. The airports have a handle on what manages them best."
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