May 8, 2002


Security is pervasive as airports prepare to meet at AAAE in Dallas

By John Boyce, Contributing Editor

May 2002

After a couple of aborted attempts to alleviate congestion at the security checkpoints at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, aviation director Bill Sherry says he and his staff hit on the idea of allowing people through security based on their boarding times.

Sherry says he tried what he called a "deli" system in which passengers pull a number and when that number was scrolled across a display over security checkpoints and/or announced over the PA system, they could go through security screening. He says it didn't work for a number of reasons.

Then he tried a tagging system in which each passenger is assigned a ticket with a letter on it. When that letter was scrolled/announced, the passenger could then go through screening. That, he says, didn't work for a number of reasons.

"Then we finally decided that we would post boarding times" on a scrolling display and over the PA, Sherry says. "When you come to the airport you have a departure time so if you're going through security checkpoint in Concourse F you'll see that we're only processing passengers with boarding times from X to Y. If you're in that group you can proceed through the security checkpoint. In you're not in that group, you're free to roam around the terminal. That has been a very effective program for us and that reduced our security lines from an hour to an hour and a half down to the maximum we have now is 15 minutes."

In May, airport managers and others will convene at the annual convention and trade show of the American Association of Airport Executives. At the forefront of the group's discussions will be how changing security requirements have put much of the industry decisionmaking on hold. Recently, contributing editor John Boyce canvassed airport directors from around the U.S. to get their insights into the changing airport environment.

All roads lead to security. No matter where you look on the aviation landscape, you will find activity - or at least talk - of airport security. Other issues are out there but almost in a state of dormancy while the industry wrestles with the uncertainty of what to do about security and the direction it will take according to federal mandates.

Capacity issues? Always important but temporarily overshadowed. Environmental issues? Always pressing but currently eclipsed. Infrastructure development? Needed but slowed or delayed. Funding? Definitely in question. Air service? For some airports still a front burner issue, but overall it waits. That is not to say that these other issues are not on the minds of airport executives. They are; but, at least for the near term, they all relate to security and will until the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) tells airports what they are expected to do to meet legislative mandates for making their facilities secure.

That is also not to say that airport executives are doing nothing. They are; it's all just largely tentative without firm direction from the TSA.

"The frustration (is) that it's extremely clear to myself and a lot of other people," says John Anderson, director at Boise (ID) Airport, "that TSA doesn't have a mission statement and they think they're in the law enforcement business. They don't understand that they're in the security business."

The enormity of September 11 rocked the aviation industry back on to its heels. But despite the turmoil and uncertainty, it has slowly shown a remarkable resiliency that has seen dipping revenues begin to rebound, passenger numbers slowly climb, congestion at checkpoints slowly thin, and corporate and general aviation begin to boom.

In a perverse twist, 9/11 has acted as a stimulus to airport executives. They are innovating, questioning accepted methods, looking into new ways to get things done. They are creating.

"We're playing a lot of what-if games," says director of aviation Bill Sherry at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, "so that at least we're better prepared for when TSA does start promulgating some of these specifications and specifics." Sherry has his planners, architects, and engineers looking at all the ramifications of installing Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) for baggage screening at his airport. "For example," he says, "when you look at the deployment of EDS it impacts electrical loads, how do we run the electrical runs. It's going to have an impact on the HVAC system; an impact on relocating various operational personnel; it'll obviously have a load impact as these machines are quite heavy - what areas of the terminal can support that kind of equipment."

While Sherry prepares for contingencies, directors like Anderson are almost forced to make adjustments to ongoing projects based on assumptions about what the TSA will do. Boise Airport is in the middle of what he says is the largest public infrastructure project in the history of the state. At a cost of an additional four percent, Anderson has directed that features related to security be built into the construction of a new terminal building.

"You just make some assumptions about the way things are going to be," Anderson says. "...We're just trying to make a best guess-timate of how it's going to be and go from there. If we wait for the government to tell us, it'll be too late."

While airline business travel returns, there appears to be an even bigger boom in business aviation which, in turn, translates into a boost in jet fuel sales.

Locations as far flung as San Diego, CA; McAllen, TX; Burlington, NC; Naples, FL; and Bangor, ME report a significant jump in charter, corporate, fractional jet, and even piston aircraft business since September.

Derald Lary at McAllen Miller International explains, "General aviation came back very quickly for us," he says. "In fact, it's up. Since that time (9/11) we have gone to a far greater percentage of pure jet traffic for the GA side than the piston traffic. I think there are a lot of businessmen that are buying airplanes now. The time factor of going from airport to airport with reduced frequencies, less available seats at the last minute, and the inconvenience of screening and airports that shut down because of evacuations, flights being canceled. I think the equation has changed."

Tracy Means, airports director for Montgomery and Brown fields in San Diego, says, "At Montgomery Field I'm seeing an increase in my jet fuel sales. That is an indication that we are doing more charter. I think that the fractional ownership is growing in popularity. I am having more high-end corporate users operate out of the airport and I have a huge demand for high-end corporate hangar space."
- J.B.

Richard Vacar, director of Houston Airport System, is not assuming anything. Houston-Bush Intercon-tinental Airport is in the midst of a vast runway and terminals construction project and Vacar says he is not building anything speculative into the new construction. "I'm confident that the things we're designing into the buildings and our airside work will be able to address (anything) from a security standpoint. I have avoided...getting myself involved in speculative spending based on what I think they (TSA) want me to do."

However, Vacar is looking at alternative technologies such as the NASA-initiated neutron beam technology, which is designed to detect explosive materials in such things as 18-wheelers and shipped cargo containers. Initial reports are that it has a far less false-positive rate than the current technology. Vacar thinks that if he installed the technology at each of the two entrances to the Intercontinental complex he could scan every vehicle entering and preclude the need for baggage screening inside the terminal.

Explains Vacar, "I got interested because taking some of those old buildings and making them do this thing (security) is just so overwhelming and expensive. Not every airport can do what we can do because of how we're situated geographically, but it may be an alternative way to do some of this stuff and, for sure, it's a good approach to cargo."

Executives such as Tim Callister at Minneapolis/St. Paul, Bonnie Allin at Tucson, and Elaine Roberts at Columbus (OH) have had to halt, delay, or cut the budget on construction projects due to a variety of reason connected to 9/11, the downturn in the aviation economy specifically, and the economy generally.

Callister reports that his airport is in the middle of a $2.5 billion construction program. Revenues, however, are off "fairly significantly," he says. "Actually, even before the September events we noticed that the business traveler was backing off and we were looking at ways to cut our budget. I think we cut $4 million out of our '01 budget already before September 11.

"Last year we cut out almost $200 million in construction that had been planned by the end of the year. This year we cut out about $300 million out of the 2002 construction program."

In Tucson, Allin reports that while she is going ahead with some development projects, others will have to wait. "We have taken a step back to make sure that what we're doing fits with current circumstances," she says." Our project was financed prior to Septem-ber 11. There are other projects that we're deferring and delaying for financial reasons or due to uncertainties."

Restricting the secured areas beyond the security checkpoints to passenger-only has created an unforeseen difficulty for some airports, particularly for those whose concessions are inside the secure area. Many airports have lost concession revenue because meeters and greeters have to wait outside security. Parking revenue has also been affected because more people are being dropped off, are taking public transportation, or not being allowed to park near the terminal because of FAA restrictions.

"What we've found," says Steven Grossman, director of aviation at Oakland International Airport, "is that in addition to closing about 500 spaces close in near the terminals, (because) meeters and greeters are not allowed past the checkpoints that people are getting much more dropped off and picked up. ...Overall, I'd say our revenues are down 1 to 2 percent over this time last year."

The restrictions of meeters and greeters has also led to many of them going to baggage claim. That's caused some congestion, but at least at Minneapolis/St. Paul it has caused a new demand for concessions. "The baggage claim has become the new meeter and greeter area,'' reports Callister at MSP. "As such, people are looking for amenities down there. They want a coffee shop; they want a comfortable place to wait; they want information - things in baggage claim you traditionally didn't have." Consequently, Callister is working with his main concessionaire to develop amenities in baggage claim.

While capacity has been moved out of the spotlight recently, it is still a significant issue, particularly for Roy Williams, director of aviation at Louis Armstrong New Orleans Internation-al Airport. Williams says that within this decade he expects Armstrong to handle close to 13 million passengers. At that point he expects significant airfield delays and an unbearable strain on terminal capacity.

"The traffic at New Orleans has been growing steadily since 1993," Williams says. "It's up about 50 percent over that period of time and to address the continuing growth of traffic we need to develop an additional air carrier runway and, as you know, air carrier runways are one of the most challenging and controversial things that airports do as they expand."

The difficulty is exacerbated in New Orleans because the proposed site is on swampland and that touches on a plethora of environmental issues, not least of which is wetlands replacement, the movement of levies, relocation of railroad rights of way, and home relocation. The location also increases the cost of the construction.

Capacity is a problem sometime in the future for Kent George, the director/CEO of the Allegheny Airport Authority, which governs Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County Airport. But he has seen operations increase due to the change in mix of aircraft at Pittsburgh, a major hub for US Airways and he, like many other executives, has had to expand the number of checkpoint lanes to handle the slowdown in throughput.

"US Airways dropped about 30 scheduled flights a day out of Pittsburgh," George says, "but they added perhaps between 35 to 40 flights a day in the commuter area, the regional carriers. Those are split up between RJs, Saabs, and Dash-8s. We have lost a chunk of weight but we picked up operations. What that did is affect our landing fee ... we went from 98 cents to, we figure, it will be somewhere in the area of $1.15 to $1.18."

While Bangor International is a major technical stop for corporate aviation continuing across the Atlantic, it's director, Rebecca Hupp, is among the many airport executives across the country looking for increased domestic air service. Currently Bangor has service to Boston, New York, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Philadelphia but, Hupp says, with the advent of the regional jet "there are many markets that can be reached from Bangor and we're looking for service to additional hubs."

Air service is a critical issue to Reno/Tahoe International Airport where Director Krys T. Bart is looking to overcome a big downturn in passenger numbers over the past three years.

"The major issue for us is trying to get passengers back on a plane in a community whose primary industry is tourism," Bart says. "The whole economics of the community is dependent on people coming in, primarily by air.... The number one thing is getting people back into Reno. Number two is maintaining a low cost operating environment"

Reno/Tahoe took a big hit in air service when American Airlines bought Reno Air in 1998 and, over 18 months, basically closed it, according to Bart. Since then, and particularly in light of 9/11, it has been a struggle not so much to get new carriers in but to get the existing carriers to expand service to and from Reno/Tahoe.

"Our loads are in the high 70 percent," Bart says. "A couple of our carriers are carrying loads in the 90 percent (range). That's a clear indication that there is a demand and we need more air service."