Phoenix Airport Checkpoint Still Considered Too Slow

Phoenix officials plan to spend about $8.5 million on new security checkpoints at Sky Harbor International Airport, improvements they believe will cut down on long wait lines and backups.

The additional checkpoints will be built in Terminals 3 and 4, which have the highest passenger volumes and where Aviation Director David Krietor acknowledges that the airport has experienced "some problems."

"The bottom line for the airport is shame on us that we don't have the lane capacity," Krietor said.

The airport was recently cited as among the worst large airports nationwide for lengthy waits at security checkpoints, according to an analysis by USA Today that looked at data between June 2004 and March 2005. Overall, the analysis found that passengers across the country are waiting less, but that six large airports, including Sky Harbor, accounted for 41 percent of the worst waits.

One of Sky Harbor's worst days was the Monday after Thanksgiving, when three checkpoints at the airport were clogged throughout the morning.

Nico Melendez, a field communications director for the Transportation Security Administration, said sometimes the long backups are caused by "anomalies," such as a broken X-ray machine. But much of the problem, he said, lies in the way airports were designed. Most of the nation's terminals were built in a pre- 9/11 world, where sophisticated security checkpoints weren't necessary.

"These areas, they weren't built to withstand that kind of passenger volume," Melendez said. "You can't shove an egg through the neck of a wine bottle without a little bit of a mess.

"Bottom line, we have to have more lanes."

And that's exactly what officials here have started providing.

Shortly after the first of the year, officials added security lanes in Terminal 4, where America West Airlines and Southwest Airlines keep their gates.

Officials doubled the size of Checkpoint A on the north side, adding four lanes there.

They also built six lanes to serve the new Checkpoint D on the south side of the terminal.

The result has been a marked drop in wait times.

Airport officials reported that in April and May of 2004, average peak wait times at the airport routinely jumped above 25 minutes, usually on Mondays and Fridays. In one instance, it soared above 40 minutes, the point at which the Transportation Security Administration must be notified of the backup.

But during the same period this year, average peak wait times have consistently stayed in the 10- to 15-minute range; only once has it reached 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, the number of passengers traveling through the airport has continued to climb. Sky Harbor is the fifth-busiest airport in the world in terms of takeoffs and landings. It recorded a record high 3.8 million passengers in March.

"It's clearly gotten a lot better in Terminal 4," Krietor said.

But the problem is far from solved. As Krietor puts it, other areas of the airport, such as Terminals 2 and 3, are "only marginally better."

The next round of expansions will increase the number of lanes on the north and south sides of Terminal 3 to five. Currently there are three lanes at each checkpoint.

In Terminal 4, Checkpoint B will be expanded from four lanes to nine.

Checkpoints C and D will be expanded to eight lanes each, from four and six lanes, respectively.

But designing the centers is expected to be tricky because they are located on relatively narrow bridges that serve as elevated crosswalks over the streets below.

Phoenix City Council members will vote Wednesday to spend nearly $2.5 million on a contract with the architectural firm DWL Architects + Planners.

It is expected to take the company about four to six months to design the new checkpoints, and officials hope to have them built by this time next year.

Most of the construction work will be done between midnight and 5 a.m. in an attempt to minimize the inconvenience to passengers, officials said.

Eventually, the security centers in Terminal 2 will be expanded as well. The city plans to begin that process this fall.