Miami Screener Cuts May Mean Longer Lines

Security checkpoint lines at Miami International Airport could get longer because the Transportation Security Administration recently began cutting 230 full-time screener positions from the airport.

The TSA, which had about 1,700 passenger and luggage screeners this summer at MIA, decided it could make do with less. The federal agency studied the airport's layout and passenger counts and concluded that a reduction would put MIA in line with similar airports nationwide.

The decision worries airport officials and members of the Miami-Dade Congressional delegation, who fear delays will frustrate passengers. They are lobbying the federal government to reverse its decision.

''It's going to be very tough,'' said aviation director Jose Abréu about longer lines.

The reductions, which started about a month ago, come as MIA prepares to open in late summer 2006 the South Terminal, which will have three new security checkpoints. TSA is achieving the cuts by leaving positions open when screeners quit.

For some passengers, clearing security at MIA is a breeze. Central Terminal's concourses F and G have fewer flights than the rest of the airport, and clearing checkpoints sometimes takes only a few minutes.

But passengers flying American Airlines often face long lines of roughly 30 minutes at peak times, especially at the checkpoint for Concourse D. Airport officials often scramble to re-route passengers to different checkpoints so they don't miss their flights.

Ana Sottorio, MIA's associate director for governmental affairs, said the airport's staffing level of 1,700 screeners this summer -- before the reductions -- is adequate. The TSA hired about 400 new screeners in early 2004 to alleviate delays.

''We think the TSA's staffing model [on which the reductions were based] is flawed,'' said Sottorio, who met with officials in Washington D.C. Thursday. ``We think the current level of staffing is what's needed.''

Airport officials noted Miami International handles the third-most international travelers of American airports. Those passengers have more bags, Sottorio said, often slowing lines and burdening TSA staff who are screening checked luggage for explosives.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International isn't expecting any cutbacks, said Broward aviation director Tom Jargiello.

Lauren Stover, TSA's spokeswoman in Miami, said she couldn't comment specifically on staffing levels. But she did say the cuts could be restored if delays increase or if the new South Terminal warrants more people.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Congress federalized airport security -- a job that had been handled by airlines -- by creating the Transportation Security Administration. Screeners inspect passengers and their carry-on bags. They also screen all checked luggage for explosives.

The TSA recently said it will allow passengers to carry items on-board that had been banned, such as scissors and screwdrivers. This helps screeners focus on explosives, Stover said, and should speed security lines. About 25 percent of screener's time was spent on items such as tweezers , Stover said.

Miami Herald

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