- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

A congressman who oversees aviation issues is warning of a “summer meltdown” of long delays for airline passengers unless the Transportation Security Administration resolves its staffing problems.

Managers of 16 airports complained yesterday to a congressional subcommittee about shortages of screeners, a bloated TSA bureaucracy and a lag in acquiring new technology to speed up searches of passengers.

The problems are becoming more severe because an improving economy is helping the number of airline passengers reach pre-September 11 levels, said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation. Summer is traditionally the busiest time of year for airline travel.

“The aviation industry is getting back to normal and we could have a summer meltdown,” Mr. Mica said after meeting with the airport managers.

The meeting was intended to review performance of the federalized work force of airport screeners.

Mr. Mica, a critic of federalized screeners, prefers that private security firms screen passengers with the TSA super-vising and auditing their work.

The federal law that created the TSA gives airports the option of using private screeners after Nov. 19, the three-year anniversary of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act.

Airport managers expressed similar concern about summer travel.

If passengers have long delays at security checkpoints, “it would be [because of] the lack of screeners and technology that is deployed in the system overall,” said John Clark, executive director of Mississippi’s Jackson International Airport.

The primary technology that is lacking is “in-line” equipment that automates searches of baggage and passengers. Instead, screeners must lift and manually search baggage, the airport managers said.

Mr. Mica estimated Congress would need to spend $40 billion to install in-line machines in all 429 of the nation’s commercial airports.

“If employees are not lifting bags all day, they’re much more likely to stay on the job,” said John L. Martin, director of San Francisco International Airport.

Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, said, “We are concerned about the increased traffic that all airports around the country are expecting this summer and we’re working with TSA to make sure they have adequate staffing.” Miss Hamilton did not attend the meeting with the aviation subcommittee.

The Federal Aviation Administration is responding to warnings of summer gridlock with a plan to intentionally delay some flights to avoid having them accumulate at airports.

Adding delays of about 15 minutes to some flights can reduce the tendency of a few late arrivals to cascade through the aviation network, the FAA said.

The programmed delays would create the equivalent of “express lanes” for airlines.

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