Richmond Airport Screeners Operating 15 Percent Below Optimal Levels

How many security screeners does it take a run an efficient airport checkpoint?

As many as you've got.

At Richmond International Airport, the Transportation Security Administration is operating about 15 percent below optimal levels. But airport officials are not seeing -- so far -- long lines of passengers waiting to have their bags searched or their shoes checked.

TSA, the federal agency that oversees passenger and baggage screening, has about 85 screeners working at the Richmond airport, which is allotted 100 positions.

Thomas W. Davis Jr., the TSA director in Richmond, said the shortfall arose from attrition. "We can't control when people leave."

This week, TSA is assessing about 75 to 100 candidates for the open jobs.

By mid-January, Davis said, he expects to have close to 109 screeners working here. TSA has approved a 9 percent staffing increase for Richmond.

It takes about six weeks to put new hires to work, Davis said, as they move through assessments, training and background checks.

Overtime hours helped the local TSA unit survive the Thanksgiving travel rush without major delays. But the airport remains concerned that the shortage of screeners could still lead to customer-service problems.

"By having less than the authorized level, it takes a lot of flexibility away from TSA," Bell said.

The airport wants TSA approval for 130 screeners before JetBlue Airways begins flying out of Richmond in late March. Since July, the airport has seen 23 percent more passengers than it did a year ago.

The new screeners will be using modified criteria to search passengers.

TSA said it will announce policy changes tomorrow that will affect passenger security and customer service at U.S. airports. It has not released details about those changes, although The Associated Press reported that the agency will allow passengers to carry scissors smaller than 4 inches long and wrenches and screwdrivers smaller than 7 inches long.

Bell said it would make sense for TSA to spend less time searching passengers for small items -- nail clippers or corkscrews -- and more energy checking for clearly dangerous materials, such as bomb parts.

He said reinforced cockpits, and more vigilant passengers, make it unlikely that hijackers could gain control of a jet by using small weapons.

"I'd rather have TSA look for something more complex that could, literally, blow an airplane out of the sky."


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