TSA Program Could Ease Lines at OIA

Mar. 30--Security-checkpoint lines at Orlando International Airport have grown so long in recent months that officials are pushing for a program that would free up additional screeners in time for the busy summer travel season.

U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, is among those leading the drive for the test program, which would use private contractors -- instead of certified security officers -- to load luggage into explosive-detection machines.

The switch would free up more officers to work the security checkpoints, potentially easing bottlenecks and speeding travelers to their gates.

In recent weeks, the lines have, at times, snaked from the two checkpoints to the terminal's main shopping corridor and food court. On more than one occasion, airport officials have shut down the moving sidewalks along that corridor to use them for more queuing space. Wait times have exceeded 45 minutes.

"Flights are being delayed, and the airport terminal is hopelessly crowded," Keller wrote in a letter to Transportation Security Administration director Kip Hawley dated March 3. "This is an unacceptable situation."

Although Orlando International has grown into the busiest airport in the state, with more than 34 million passengers last year, an 8 percent jump from 2004, the number of TSA screeners has stayed flat.

Denise Dell-Powell, a bankruptcy attorney at Akerman Senterfitt, waited in line on a recent trip to Texas with her infant son.

"The last thing you want to do is miss your flight and be stuck in the airport longer with a child," she said.

And her clients have complained as well.

"They tell me, 'I got there an hour and a half ahead of time, and I missed my flight,' " she said.

The recent crowd-control efforts by airport officials intensified around Christmastime, when travel historically picks up, said Chris Schmidt, deputy executive director of airport operations.

"As a passenger or customer convenience, we would like to see the lines move faster so they [passengers] have a better experience as they're leaving the airport," Schmidt said, explaining the airport is also in favor of the programknown as the Baggage Pusher Pilot Project Fund.

TSA spokesman Christopher White said the agency acknowledges that wait times have increased during the past year because of surges in passenger volume and airline schedules that bring more people to the checkpoint at the same times.

"We are working to mitigate that while still providing world-class security," White said.

The agency has about 850 full-time security officers in Orlando and is planning to hire about 150 more part-time workers before travel numbers peak in the summer.

In addition, the agency has placed about 30 "floater" officers in Orlando, personnel who travel the country to help alleviate the busiest airports, White said.

He said TSA strives to open all 14 lanes at both the east and west passenger checkpoints in Orlando when lines are long, but "may not have adequate staff to open every lane at all peak times."

Keller's letter, which asks TSA's Hawley to designate Orlando a test site for the baggage program, is still being evaluated by the agency, White said.

"We're always interested in increasing our efficiencies," White said. "It's premature to discuss specifics about this pilot program. I think we've shown our willingness to always explore options."

In the past, those options have included the registered traveler program known as Clear, which speeds through security points those passengers who have paid a fee and submitted personal data.

The latest effort to ease the TSA staffing crunch comes at a difficult time for the agency.

Last month, TSA federal security director Art Meinke fired at least 23 security officers in Orlando because they failed a portion of their recertification exam, but quickly reversed that decision and hired them back.

Also, portions of a government report made public this month showed that undercover investigators were able to pass bomb-making materials through the checkpoints at 21 airports across the country.

Orlando International and airlines have tried to ease the security burden through measures of their own. The airport has started construction on a baggage-conveyor system that ultimately could reduce the number of TSA employees handling luggage.

And airlines are working together to pay for private baggage loaders and workers who remind passengers to remove change from their pockets and take off their belts before stepping through the metal detectors. Those airline-funded workers only work at select peak times, said Marilee McInnis, spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, Orlando's largest carrier.

Still, Keller's chief of staff said more relief is needed.

"Anybody who's been there in recent months knows the passenger screening lines have gotten out of hand, and something needs to be done," Bryan Malenius said.

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448.

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