Long, slow lines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport security checkpoints may improve starting next week, when screening officers will open more lanes in time for the peak travel season.
The extra staffing at the airport comes amid pressure from frustrated travelers across the country to shorten security lines that cause hours of delays.
That’s what airport and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials promised Thursday when they announced Sea-Tac’s move to hire 90 full-time, temporary private contractors before an expected record number of passengers maneuver through the airport’s terminals this summer.
“We’ve seen this nationwide issue in reduction in TSA staff,” said Daniel Zenk, senior operations and customer-service manager for Sea-Tac. “These contractors will help support the TSA,” he said. Officials estimate the extra staff could speed up lines by about 10 to 15 minutes.
The change comes amid pressure from frustrated travelers across the country to shorten security lines that are causing hours of delays. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, for example, officials have urged passengers to arrive three hours before their departure time. A Seattle traveler reported standing in line there for two hours on a recent trip.
Zenk said the additional workers will make more TSA agents available to open lanes when the contractors start Monday and work through September. The change comes before the hectic Memorial Day weekend, when officials predict a half-million fliers to pass through the airport. They say the busiest day will be May 27.
The private contractors, whom Sea-Tac hired through the Denver-based company HSS Inc., will help with customer-service duties, such as telling passengers to remove electronics from bags and to take off their shoes. They’ve undergone background checks and a week of training, Zenk said. Other airports, such as the Denver International Airport, have hired staff from the company, too, he said.
Under TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, 22 of about 450 commercial U.S. airports, including San Francisco International Airport, use private screeners, who must follow TSA procedures. They handle security functions, not just customer-service tasks like the new private contractors at Sea-Tac.
Other airports are considering such hires, too. Some transportation experts point out, however, that airports with them are still experiencing longer wait times as passenger volume increases.
Sea-Tac officials say the airport is the nation’s fastest growing of its size. They expect this year’s number of passengers to surpass the past year’s record of more than 42 million, continuing a five-year growth trend. More than 3.5 million fliers used the airport in April alone, according to airport spokesman Perry Cooper.
The Port of Seattle Commission approved $3.3 million for the private contractors, an operations cost that airport users cover in fees and rates, officials said.
Last week, Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, announced that the TSA would pay more overtime for screeners, speed up hiring and increase the use of bomb-sniffing dogs.
Congress has moved $34 million in the TSAs budget to help the agency pay for 768 additional screeners. The agency is also moving bomb-sniffing dogs that screen passengers from smaller airports to larger ones.
Lorie Dankers, a spokeswoman for the TSA, said Sea-Tac will receive 48 additional screening officers in the coming months with the change.
She said the airport has the equivalent of 835 TSA staffers among its part-time and full-time employees and plans to have 855 by the peak of summer. The airport has five bomb-sniffing dogs, with a goal of 10 by the beginning of next year, Dankers said.
Cooper said in an email that airport officials and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., continue to emphasize to the TSA that adding agents, dogs and screening lanes will help the problem here.
Training screening officers locally also helps shrink lines, officials say.
All federal airport-screening officers had been required to travel to Georgia, but the training backlog only further slowed airport checkpoints, they said. The new screening officers are being trained locally, Dankers said.
During the midmorning news conference, lines moved relatively quickly, and some travelers said they noticed. About an hour before, though, they waited in wrapping lines that filled security checkpoints. www.seattletimes.com